Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Toy Story: Pixar's Got a Friend in Product Placement

By: Lexi Frazier


Ads always find a way to follow us, stealthily inserting themselves into the very communication medium that commands our gaze. Much like taxes, dentist appointments, and crazy exes, we’re never able to escape ads. From billboards to TV and radio commercials to pop-up ads on the Internet, these relentless selling devices know no boundaries. Movies are no exception. Companies spend millions of dollars to feature even just a glimpse of their products on the big silver screen. Whether it’s your favorite character sipping a Coca Cola, driving off in a Ford Fusion, or shopping at Macy’s, movies are flooded with strategic product placement. Product placement is a practice in which companies gain exposure for their products by paying for them to be featured in movies and TV programs. Why do companies spend so much money on product placement? Because they serve as visual arguments that have proved effective and highly influential in shaping consumers’ buying habits. It’s just as Lunsford mentioned in her book, Everything’s An Argument, “We shape our tools and afterwards our tools shape us…multimedia arguments work us over completely.” (p. 332).

The Toy Story movie franchise takes product placement to the next level: instead of just featuring sellable products in select scenes, these products are the stars of the film! All of Toy Story’s main toy characters are available for purchase from Disney-Pixar, and you’d better believe kids are lining up to buy their heroes from their favorite movies. After all, what better way is there to sell toys than making a movie about toys? Additionally, the films include product placement for several name brand companies other than Disney-Pixar, such as Mattel, Fisher-Price, and Hasbro. As of 2014, the Toy Story franchise had generated over $2.4 billion in merchandise sales for Disney-Pixar, as kids were eager to bring Woody, Buzz Lightyear, and the gang home to create their own adventures with these beloved movie characters. Toy Story films also feature countless name brand products from other toy companies: Barbie dolls from Mattel, Etch-A-Sketch from The Ohio Art Company, Mr. Potato Head from Hasbro, the list goes on and on. In fact, according to the Hollywood Branded marketing entertainment blog, the manufacturers of the Slinky Dog, James Industries, had gone out of business and ceased making the toy ten years prior to the release of the first Toy Story movie. However, Toy Story’s booming success raked in over 20,000 new orders for the company and put them back in business. And here we see the great power of product placement.

Practically any given scene in the Toy Story franchise contains some form of product placement, but I’d like to shine the spotlight on three in particular. First, there is the scene from Toy Story 2 where we first meet Barbie. Andy’s toys are cruising through a toy store and stumble upon a Barbie paradise, complete with psychedelic tunes, tiki lights, a beach backdrop, and an epic Barbie pool party. In an instant we are bombarded by so many Barbie dolls and accessory products that the little girl inside of us wants to run to the nearest store, buy up as many Barbie items as she can carry and imitate this mind-blowing party at home! We see many different styles of Barbie dolls and clothes as well as other accessories like a swimming pool with a waterslide, umbrellas and floaties, and even an outdoor grill. When Andy’s toys ask where they can find Al from Al’s Toy Barn, Tour Guide Barbie slip and slides into action to guide them on their way. While the film pokes fun at Barbie Career dolls by featuring such a silly, eccentric Tour Guide Barbie, it does serve to advertise this particular doll and other related Career dolls.

Mattel, the owner of the Barbie brand, benefits from product placement in this scene because it showcases many of its products and because it associates the brand with an attractive, fun, and girly ethos. All the Barbie dolls are dancing, doing the limbo, water sliding, and shouting with glee, giving off a carefree, cool, and fun party vibe that will appeal to young girls who look up to Barbie and want a life like hers one day. Also, the gang of Andy’s toys that encounters these dolls (all of whom are males) are dazzled by this congregation of beautiful dolls, their jaws immediately hitting the floor. Mr. Potato Head even has to remind himself repeatedly that he’s a married spud when Tour Guide Barbie hops in their car because these stunning dolls are just so appealing. Additionally, the scene demonstrates that Barbie dolls not only love to party and have fun, but they’re also gorgeous and practically irresistible to men, another trait young girls will want to imitate and that makes the product more desirable to them. In this way, this scene establishes the brand’s particular ethos and makes appeals to young girls that are both emotional (a desire for fun) and logical (if you strive to be like Barbie, boys will like you). In Everything’s An Argument, Lunsford makes a good point that images create a sense of who someone is, what they value, and how they wish to be perceived (p.335). Such visual arguments can fashion a brand’s unique image, and that is exactly what this scene does for Mattel and Barbie.

During another scene in Toy Story 2, we see yet another instance of product placement when the Andy’s toys are in his bedroomtrying to recreate the scene of Woody’s kidnapping with various toys and use anEtch-A-Sketch to draw the man who stole their friend. Buzz is then is able to identify the criminal as Al from Al’s Toy Barn, a man they recognize from commercials where he dresses as a chicken. In this short scene, there are several examples of product placement: a Troll Doll from The Dam Things Co., Clue and Guess Who board games from Hasbro, Legos from the Lego Group, a Mr. Spell toy from Texas Instruments Co., and obviously the Etch-A-Sketch. In fact, the Hollywood Branded blog argues that Toy Story “made” Etch-A-Sketch such a success, increasing its sales by 4000%. Also, these products are placed in a positive light because they are on the team we’re rooting for, the team of Andy’s toys. The Legos help to replicate the crime scene, the Etch-A-Sketch produces flawless depictions of the criminal, and the Mr. Spell toy is used as a computer to search for feathery kidnapper’s identity. Thus, these toys appear noble and heroic, a boost in ethos for any toy brand. One could even argue that this product placement is making a logos argument that these toys are also incredibly useful for accomplishing tasks, since they are able to help solve the case of Woody’s disappearance.

The last scene I’ll examine is from Toy Story 3. It’s a touching scene that shows a montage of home videos in which Andy is playing with and growing up alongside his beloved toys. We hear Toy Story’s highly signature song, “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” which serves to set a very sweet and sentimental mood. As Giannetti so eloquently puts it in Understanding Movies, a film’s music is critical for generating an emotional response and establishing mood (p.22). Also during the scene, the home videos depict how the toys provide Andy with not only endless enjoyable playtime, they also help him bond with his little sister. Additionally, they are there for the big moments like birthday celebrations, as well as the everyday moments like watching a movie. The film implies that these toys literally grew up with Andy by showing he and his toys measuring their heights on the wall. The Toy Story toys inspire his creativity and allow him to express himself through spirited, fun-filled play. This scene humanizes the toys so that they appear to be more than objects made of plastic; they are also some of Andy’s oldest and dearest friends. Such a touching, sentimental montage accompanied by this heartwarming song makes the Toy Story toys in particular seem to have priceless value as incomparable playmates and fundamental pieces of a kid’s childhood.

This emotional, tender scene is obviously appealing to potential customers’ sense of pathos. The video montage manipulates viewers’ emotions to make the Toy Story toys ridiculously attractive to young viewers, and it may even tug at the heartstrings of adult audience members. Children see this and desire toys like Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Jess, Mr. Potato Head, Hamm, Rex, and the whole gang to be their lifelong, treasured friends so they can embark on their own adventures with them. AND it just so happens Disney-Pixar can offer kids just that…in exchange for money in its pockets! This is pathos in advertising at its finest. Want to make a killing selling toys? Make audiences everywhere fall in love with them. This scene also manages to cram in every last product it can, from Hot Wheels tracks to Tinker Toys to Candyland, spreading the love so that outside toy companies like Hasbro will be saying, “Cha-Ching!” as well.

These three scenes are just small snapshots of the monumental role product placement plays in Toy Story movies. Product placement boosts the ethos of Disney Pixar as well as big toy companies like Hasbro and Mattel because it implies that their toys are worthy of star in their own movie and sharing in the Toy Story’s astounding success. Toy Story’s product placement is loaded with pathos appeals to potential customers, exploiting young girls’ insecurities with Barbie dolls, making you root for the heroic protagonist toys like Woody and Buzz, and eliciting sentiment for magical, meaningful friends that toys can be for kids. Logical appeals are a bit sparser, but are still present to argue that toys are worth being role models, toys can be resourceful and handy, and toys can be loyal companions and unparalleled playmates. In terms of successful product placement, Toy Story has earned every bite of its 5 chip rate. Overall, the idea of making sellable kids products the stars of one of the most successful animated film franchises in history is simply brilliant, and it is money right into Disney-Pixar’s whimsical, talking Piggy Bank.

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