Last week, we explored the concept of shoving products into movies, but there’s an equal and opposite marketing method where movies are shoved into product commercials – especially if the character is an iconic one. There’s a distinction to be made here about the difference between celebrities endorsing colognes and fictional characters doing it, although the line can definitely be blurred. Movie star endorsements are as old as the medium, whether it’s Buster Keaton slugging out the chalk for Simon Pure Beer, Charles Bronson going overboard with his self-sprinkling of Mandom, Arnold Schwarzenegger scream-laughing for a Japanese energy drink, or Abraham Lincoln selling us churros. And that doesn’t include all the normal, run-of-the-mill advertising where an actress loves a brand of make-up or a wrestler loves beef jerky.
A human being selling out is one thing, but there’s something especially heinous about a character being used to market a product because it’s an element of art forced into a square hole of commercialism. Oftentimes its done without the creator’s consent (or consent is contractually taken away from the starting block). In most cases, the original actor doesn’t even have to be involved (for better or worse), especially if there’s a costume involved. In its rawest form, it’s the uglification of something we love.
This list is light-years away from being complete, but it hopefully shows a well-rounded view of different types of movie characters in commercials throughout a few different time periods.
There’s one more distinction to be made, though, and that’s between movie tie-ins and products completely divorced from the story or character being used to promote them. You’ll see both on this list, but it seems fair to say that there’s more transparent shame to the latter. Having Harry Potter help sell “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince Video Game” has an obviousness to it, but having B.A. Baracus sell tampons (for example) doesn’t – and the result might be a pathetic attempt at using an empty vase of recognizability to stir up interest where the recognizable figure is completely arbitrary.
But enough about most Hollywood remakes, let’s get to the list.
7. Iron Man Drops His LG Phone
As good a place to start as any, cell phones have almost nothing to do within the Iron Man universe, beyond people, you know, using them like we all do. However, it makes more sense than Tony Stark desperately wanting a Burger King hamburger after being held hostage by terrorists and almost dying, because the implication here is a simple one: Iron Man uses LG. A fictional character from comic books that’s been brought successfully to the world of movies has a favorite brand. It’s a celebrity endorsement using a fake celebrity.
This is a solid example of cross-promotion not because of cell phones specifically, but because Iron Man as a character is known for technology. He’s a highly powerful tech industrialist and a genius inventor, so it’s no wonder LG wanted their brand associated with him (even though he could probably invent a much better phone himself using his face as the logo). Essentially, this is crass, but at least there’s a connection.
6. The Marx Brothers Selling Prom Shampoo
There’s perhaps a thin line between celebrity endorsement and movie character endorsement here, but Harpo and Chico Marx weren’t actually like this in real life. They’re clearly playing the characters they made wildly famous in movies like Duck Soup and Animal Crackers in order to sell shampoo. The stretch they had to make is pretty apparent in the writing, too. Harpo Marx as an expert on hair care? Sure. Why the hell not?
More than anything else, this stands as proof that the phenomenon isn’t a new one, even though the widespread use of it certainly is. After all, Barney Fife even shilled for Grapenuts Cereal.
5. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Cereal
Speaking of which, movie and television characters are often a part of this balanced breakfast with promotional (read: cheap) cereal that’s been poorly branded with their imagery. I chose this commercial for Bill and Ted’s Excellent Cereal because it’s hilarious, but there are hundreds more where it came from (read: the 80s). Food, especially sugary crap made for children, is an easy target for tie-ins, and apparently you can make a lot of money having Slimer from Ghostbusters endorse food-coloring and water.
If anyone actually ate this product and survived, please let us know.
4. RoboCop Turns Japanese
In a way it seems unfair to go overseas, but the truth is that the use of figures like this is a global trend. Since the film industry in the US exports 38 metric tons of culture to the rest of the world every year, it’s easy to see why there would be a demand to see a cyborg pulling chopsticks from where his gun should be and eating noodles.
While people in inflatable costumes row an imaginary boat.
3. Mini-Darth Vader Force-Starts a Volkswagen
This is the kind of whip-smart, adorable advertising that makes me regret using the word “shameless” in the title. We shouldn’t forget that it’s a cinematic icon transposed into the world of marketing, but Volkswagen (and more specially, Deutsch LA, the company that made the spot) finds a psychological loophole by not using Darth Vader himself, but still using his image. The result is incredibly potent. By knowing there’s a child under the costume (one that could be a boy or girl), and by placing ourselves in the same position, it recaptures the magic of youth, and the magic of Star Wars all at the same time.
It’s a vivid, imaginative way of tying an iconic movie figure into a product (especially something like a car that wouldn’t even have existed a long, long time ago when Vader was force-choking everyone all over the place). Plus, it also reminds us that Darth Vader Halloween costumes are always for sale.
2. DirecTV Slips on Some Daisy Dukes
Although it’s also creative, this commercial featuring Jessica Simpson as Daisy Duke from The Dukes of Hazard is hilariously conspicuous with its use of every sleazy ad trick in the book (even going so far as to directly ask why we’re not drooling over Simpson’s sexy assets in high definition). On the other hand, it scores points for using the movie character from inside the movie itself in order to sell the product. There was a series of these commercials which varied in cleverness, but they reached a nasty, somber pitch when the late Chris Farley’s image was used so that David Spade could revisit his Tommy Boy character to cram channel packages down people’s throats.
This is a good idea with fluctuating execution, but at the heart of it all, it seems totally clear that the creators of these characters weren’t consulted unless they still held copyright. DirecTV negotiated rights from parent companies and studios in order to put words in the mouths of fictional characters.
As a side note, it’s also interesting to look at these commercials as a hybrid of character and celebrity endorsement. We’re so acutely aware that it’s Jessica Simpson in tiny shorts playing Daisy Duke that it becomes a blurry world where she can represent both herself and the movie/television character at the same time. That’s especially true when considering that DirecTV didn’t always use the most notable characters.
1. Sherlock Holmes Solves the Case of the Disgusting Convenience Store Bathroom
It all started with Robert Downey, Jr., and it ends with Robert Downey, Jr. Of course, it really doesn’t involve him at all. It involves Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes.
These ads for 7-Eleven may be the worst offenders in modern memory. They don’t even try to make sense (much like mixing numbers and letters in your brand name). Maybe the idea was to make the imagery on the posters so discordant that people would go insane, rush into the store, and order thousands of Go Go Taquitos. Shoving Holmes and Watson’s smirking faces together with processed beef by-product, the price tag, and a vague slogan is so baffling that the only way to understand what’s going on is to cover yourself in nicotine patches and run through the streets of London in a panic.
Then again, how the hell do you sell gas station food using Arthur Conan Doyle’s enigmatic detective? It’s a ridiculously hard assignment, but so was “How do you sell a car using Darth Vader?” and that team figured it out. As a direct counter-point, The Simpsons Movie nailed the cross-promotion with 7-Eleven when they converted several of the stores into Kwik-E-Marts. Both cases point out how disastrous ads can be when the product and promoter don’t match, and how wondrous they can be when there’s clever common ground.
The companion ad for the Holmes tie-in is one that exclaims “Mystery Solved” hanging in large letters over “7-Eleven has great coffee,” which brings to mind an image of Holmes banging his head against the wall in month 17 of trying to solve The Great Coffee Quality Question. “Is it great coffee or not?! Damn that Moriarty for posing the question while selling pot to teenagers outside the place where they sell those fantastic taquitos!”
Hopefully this has been an illuminating, if not complete, study in how famous fictional figures can be used as experts to sell us things we don’t necessarily need or want. The examples here vary in style, quality, effect, and age, but they all share that root element of using (or even perverting) art to promote commerce.
Now the real mystery is whether it’s worse to take a celebrity’s word that their product is the best or a character that doesn’t exist in real life’s word for it.