Art or advert? The LEGO Movie: Product placement without the instruction manual
Ivan Radford | On 19, Jul 2014Reading time: 9 mins
“If one thing is evident in the product placement industry, it’s that brand cameos in films are on a steady decline.”
That was AdWeek’s conclusion in its 2014 Product Placement Awards. Indeed, there was an average of 9.1 placements per no. 1 film in 2013, the lowest since 2001, when the site’s awards began.
Is that why the ones that do exist tend to stick out like a sore thumb (made better with a Elastoplast band-aid and Nurofen)? Have consumers simply become increasingly aware of products sandwiched into scenes? Even when films draw attention to it ironically – see Casino Royale’s knowing namedrop of Omega watches – audiences don’t seem to be won over by brands getting time on the big screen.
AdWeek argues producers are changing their strategy; they are now looking to capitalise on marketing tie-ins off-screen. Why have a mention for a second in a movie when you can be worn on a t-shirt for weeks?
Nonetheless, the link between cinema and commerce is as close as ever. Budweiser alone – AdWeek’s winner of the 2013 awards – appeared in nearly one-quarter (23 per cent) of all US box office No. 1s, or 9 of the 39 No. 1 films last year. Budweiser were 2013’s most frequently-appearing products in films. Second place went, unsurprisingly, to Apple.
Both veterans, though, pale in comparison to another company: LEGO.
AdWeek’s diverse range of awards include prizes for Best Product Placement, Role in a Supporting Product Placement (where a product is part of the plot), Off-Screen Supporting Product (for tie-in merchandise), Reverse Product Placement (for fictional on-screen products that become real off-screen merchandise) and Product Placement Product Placement (for films who make self-aware jokes about their production placement). The LEGO Movie would win all of them.
You just have to see the film’s title to know it is an advert for LEGO. But The LEGO Movie is no ordinary advert: it’s an advert made of LEGO. By merely being created, the film becomes LEGO and LEGO becomes the film. The product and its placement are one and the same thing.
How, then, does it pull it off?
Bizarrely, the film’s success as an advert stems from the fact that it doesn’t seem to be a very good one.
The LEGO Movie, despite its capitalist origins, is a brazenly anti-capitalist film. It presents us with a world where people are mindless consumers, distracted from politicians’ evil plans by dumb TV sitcoms and overpriced coffee. All the while, they work, get up and chill out to the radio station, which endlessly plays the same song (Everything Is Awesome), emphasising the importance of conformity and consumerism – a routine that our hero becomes aware of and, armed with a Matrix-like prophecy that he is The Special, tries to undermine. Hell, the film’s bad guy is even called Lord Business.
But at the heart of The LEGO Movie lies the awkward truth: that the whole thing would not be possible without LEGO. The fabric, funding and themes are all based upon those tiny plastic bricks. Or, to put it another way, everything in the film is a product. Meet a new character? That’s a figure you could buy. A building? A set you could construct. Since its original cinema release, 17 LEGO Movie-branded boxes have flooded store shelves with instructions on how to recreate the film’s scenes, props and people.
That, of course, is exactly what Lord Business would want: everyone to build things exactly in accordance with the manual. And yet that is what The LEGO Movie purportedly decries: our heroes are Master Builders, who have the ability to make what they want out of bricks without instructions. The overwhelming message of the film is not just to be yourself, but to express yourself. More importantly, to express yourself with LEGO. It’s a consumerist ultimatum packaged in a subversive box.
That juxtaposition is is not a unique one in this digital age. We are surrounded by commerce, from hit-bait website articles designed to generate advertising traffic to corporate Twitter accounts trying to interact with normal people. It is no coincidence that the best social media campaigns – for example, Waterstones Oxford Street – come from spontaneous creativity, those who sit back and let something happen.
— WaterstonesOxfordSt (@WstonesOxfordSt) May 19, 2014
The result? Waterstones Oxford Street appears non-commercialised and on the side of the common person. The result of that result? Consumers like Waterstones and are more likely to give them money.
That’s similar to what LEGO appears to have done with The LEGO Movie: hire writer/directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller and step back to let things happen. At that point, Dan and Kevin Hageman had already started work on the film’s story, but Lord and Miller have made their name with their anarchic brand of humour, which subverts everything from genre tropes to their own jokes. Corporate big wigs at Warner Bros. and LEGO would have been well aware of what they would get from the film-makers’ involvement.
It’s a typically smart decision from an intelligent company. It says a lot that in an age of virtual entertainment and mobile devices, LEGO – a toy as non-virtual as it gets – remains relevant.
A LEGO advert from 1981 shows just how much the company has changed over the years.
33 years ago, the ad showed a girl holding a LEGO set with no hint of pink or talk of women. The conclusion? LEGO is universal. That remains the case, but they now have gender-targeted products. In 2012, LEGO launched LEGO Friends, a range designed to appeal to girls, set in Heartlake City and full of purple and pink blocks. (It’s interesting to note that The LEGO Movie does not feature LEGO Friends at all – but does introduce a new world, Cloud Cuckoo Land, led by the overly happy (and unstable) Princess Unikitty, which is now available in stores.)
Responding to an ad for LEGO Friends, Princess Free Zone remade the 1981 image for 2013, pointing out that children haven’t changed – but the people marketing toys have.
It’s true. But while LEGO’s changes perpetuate gender attitudes that do children no favours (that’s an issue for another article), the way LEGO has changed its marketing has been impressively shrewd. LEGO Friends came off the back of research that found 90 per cent of the company’s consumers were boys – a statistic that prompted them to aggressively pursue the other 10 per cent. The result is “one of the biggest successes in Lego’s history” says NPR, with sales to girls tripling in that year.
Meanwhile, LEGO has strategically teamed up with other major brands, from Star Wars to Marvel’s superheroes, to keep up with the latest trends. But it is not just plastic toys: LEGO has diversified into all kinds of products. There are now books for kids to read, from those about the company to those set within the worlds of its branded partners.
Even more inspired is its line of video games, from LEGO Star Wars to LEGO Batman, which bring the toy’s irreverent tone and blocky visual style to usually serious environments and let people button-bash their way through levels of knocking down blocks and putting them back together again. There is something about seeing a new, hi-tech world through the prism of an old-fashioned physical toy that is undeniably effective; the zeitgeist of the playground buzz coupled with the nostalgia of childhoods past.
Then, there are films based on those games – and, in the case of The LEGO Movie, a game based on the film. Then come figures and play sets based on the films, the games, the films based on the games and the games based on the films. It’s an endless cycle of commercialism – a staggering piece of positioning in a society that could have easily moved on from LEGO. Compare it to construction toy rival Meccano, which was bought out by Canadian firm Spin Master last year. Its sales are about $40 million per year. LEGO? $4 billion.
We live in a world where adverts are increasingly striving to be creative and innovative. The ones that achieve it are highly effective – and stick in the memory. Honda’s “cog” advert, for example, with its long, single shot of a Rube Goldberg-esque daisy chain of car parts, is easy to remember. It was released over 10 years ago, in 2003. Music videos have always echoed this trend, with labels and bands hoping to have their song or product go viral across the web.
The LEGO Movie produced a string of LEGO versions of adverts to be broadcast on TV ahead of the movie’s release.
The LEGO Movie has likewise been doing gangbusters on the Internet since its early digital release on Monday 7th July. The film is on track to be blinkbox’s best-selling early digital release, MD Adrian Letts told The Raygun, while it is already Warner’s fastest selling EST title of all time. All that is before the DVD and Blu-ray release happens on Monday 21st July (when it will also be available to rent on VOD).
Why do people respond so well to the product?
“We took something you could claim is the most cynical cash grab in cinematic history, basically a 90 minute LEGO commercial, and turned it into a celebration of creativity, fun and invention, in the spirit of just having a good time and how ridiculous it can look when you make things up,” says animation supervisor Chris McKay.
The LEGO Movie understands what LEGO is and celebrates our relationship with it – at times, on a surprisingly deep, emotional level. Which makes us enjoy the film. Which, in turn, makes us feel good about the product. Which makes us more likely to go and buy a new box of bricks.
In an age where capitalism and creativity are entangled, The LEGO Movie is a fascinating piece; a harmonious juxtaposition of the cynical and sincere. For all its commercial origins, what Lord and Miller – and everyone else involved – have produced is a subversive, moving and hilarious comedy, which, like LEGO itself, appeals to all ages and genders. The LEGO Movie is a remarkable piece of art. Which, in turn, makes it a remarkable advert.
It’s a piece of product placement that throws away the instruction manual.
The LEGO Movie is available on Sky Cinema. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, as part of a £11.99 Sky Cinema Month Pass subscription.