Stranger than Fiction: Meaningful Connections between Brands and Fictional Worlds

I’m a big Sci-Fi fan – it probably comes with the territory I work in. Being particularly obsessed with innovation and the future of comms, Sci-Fi often indicates the type of tech we can expect to use in the not-too-distant-future. From H.G. Wells’ World Brain (a spookily accurate prediction of the internet) to Star Trek’s Tricorder (the precursor to every biometric measurement device currently on the market), Sci-Fi has been an inspiration and roadmap to our own technological future. I’m still waiting with baited breath for teleporters to become common place.

This clairvoyance in sci-fi, and its direct link to the products we use and love every day, got me thinking about the more practical relationship between brands, their products, and the fictions we consume. Product placement has been around for decades and, subtle or overt, I’ve never met a soul fond of it. It’s grating, jarring, obvious and, for me and many others, does very little for my estimation of a brand; but the more we examine the strange relationships product placement has with the media consumer, the muddier the waters become.

Pleasant Examples

Ultimately, with regards to comms, there is nothing more powerful than an association between a consumer’s favourite movie, TV show, or song and your product. However, as soon as the link appears to have been created by the brand, it has a hugely detrimental effect. What’s interesting is when the brand has had no control over its products’ inclusion in a narrative. The well-documented vehicle of choice of Edward Cullen (the angst-laden vampire hero in tween pap-fest, Twilight) led to an unexpected avenue into an uncharted market place for perennial dad-mobile purveyors, Volvo. Suddenly, Edward Cullen brooding away in his S60R provided Volvo with a line into a whole demographic of imitators and admirers. Admittedly, again, in my opinion, the crass and overt inclusion of a probably conflicted Robert Pattinson in their ad campaigns pushed that unexpected opportunity into a black mark against them for a lot of consumers (I wouldn’t touch a Volvo with a barge-poll now because of the Twilight connotations).

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This again is indicative of your love for the story or, ahem, franchise, in question. A wholly more palatable example in my opinion is the totally radical Nike self-lacing trainers immortalised by Back to the Future. The Nike Mags are particularly interesting as, because of the franchise, Nike actually got the opportunity to invent a product of theirs, shown on film, which didn’t exist outside the land of fiction. What Nike got right here is that they released the trainers exclusively as part of charity auctions. They raised $6.7million for the Michael J. Fox foundation, a hugely positive association with the battle against Parkinson’s disease. So, an incredibly cool product (because my opinion is that Twilight is garbage and Back to the Future is bloody awesome, universal and unassailable, right?), a powerful association with charitable endeavour, and Nike generating an enormous amount of goodwill and positive press – the perfect example of meaningful brand association in this field.

Not-So-Pleasant Examples

There are of course horrible examples of products existing in fiction coming to life in the real world. You can buy Duff Beer (you know it’s terrible), South Park Cheesy Poofs are on sale (cardboard anyone?), and you can hit the town doused in Anchorman’s Sex Panther Cologne (it works 60% of the time, every time). I’m still waiting for Mattel to release a fully functioning Hoverboard (they’ve got access to state of the art Mag-Lev technology, right?). Lexus have actually entered this field and the results are truly spectacular (it goes on water! What!!!??).

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Realistically, the only way to engender goodwill through product placement or brand/fiction relationships is to look at it as an exercise in brand awareness or CSR, not as another clunky sales avenue. Fandom, love of a story, characters or setting in a fictional world is a highly personal thing for a lot of people so crowbar your brand in at your peril.

The reason I started thinking about this topic is in relation to my current favourite Sci-Fi show, Rick and Morty. If you haven’t seen it, stop what you’re doing right now, leave your office, download it, watch it (I envy your ability to watch it all again through fresh eyes!). The show is about a cantankerous old inventor Rick and his often over-sensitive grandson, Morty, and their adventures through space-time and other dimensions. The show currently holds a 9.3 rating on IMDB, making it the highest rated Sci-Fi show of all time, which is no mean feat for a cartoon. It has already created an armada of loyal fans due to its meta-humour, existentialism and refusal to adhere to studio norms (they released the much anticipated first episode of season 3 on April Fool’s Day with zero fanfare and marketing).

It was this episode that got me interested in the relationship between product and fiction and how powerful it can be. SPOILER ALERT!  In the episode, Rick is trapped inside his own mind and he leads an insectoid alien to a specific memory where they take a trip to McDonald’s. The reason why? So, Rick can get his hands on some limited edition McNugget Szechuan dipping sauce, released as part of a promotion for the Disney Movie Mulan. Rick tells the alien how delicious it is and that now that the promotion is over there’s nowhere you can get it. At the end of the episode in a typically sinister turn, Rick reveals that the only reason he saved the universe in that particular episode was so that he could keep the show going for nine more seasons, with the sole and ultimate aim being to bring back the McDonald’s Szechuan sauce. Cue an inevitable explosion in the Rick and Morty fan boy arena, a lonely packet of the sauce found in the back of a car bought on eBay has been in turn sold on eBay for, wait for it…$14,700 dollars (people are stupid). Petitions have been signed and the brand itself has responded. As crazy as this seems, it is a powerful reminder of the lengths people will go to feel a connection with their favourite fictions and how brands have a precarious but unbelievable opportunity to get involved. Wubba Lubba Dub Dub!

Callum Gill – Head of Insight and Innovation

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