The catchphrase of The Lorax — "Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing's going to get better" — can mean a lot of different things depending on one's perspective when it comes to the marketing of Universal's record-breaking new #1 movie.
To purists, it means that unless consumers speak up, Hollywood's commercialization of Dr. Seuss, including signing a cross-promotional sponsorship deal with an automaker, the movie's environmental message is for naught. To Mazda, the brand that's ponying up for The Lorax tie-in, it means that unless some consumers care an awful lot, sales numbers are not going to get better.
But is the outrage about Mazda's Lorax partnership making "perfect" the enemy of "good" — and overlooking ?
The easy way out of The Lorax is throw up one's arms and condemn everyone involved in one of Hollywood's more cyclical endeavors in recent memory. First, there's the fact that a story about tree conservation and environmental sensitivity sponsored by a car company. This outrage is perfect for Washington Post headlines like "The Lorax helps market Mazda SUVs to elementary school children nationwide."
Of course, Mazda isn't marketing to schoolkids, but to the adults accompanying them to the cinema. In the Minneapolis screening we attended, two different Mazda-Lorax ads were shown in the ten minutes before the previews began. One of the local ads featured, in a pale imitation of Seussian rhyming, "Morrie's Mazda of Minnetonka."
Then there is everyone else. Mazda is drawing fire away from the many other Lorax partners, like IHOP and Pottery Barn Kids. Yet the secondary message of the film is a condemnation of blind consumerism and slick, soulless marketing. It's a message that seems to indict all partners as well as the studio itself for signing any promotional partners. The bottom line being that everyone involved, including the parents who would know better and just read their kids the book instead, have dirty hands.
But what about a real market approach to assessing the Mazda tie-in?
In one scene in the film, our noble young hero, Ted, laments to the Once-ler that he is but one voice, what good can he possibly do? To this, the Once-ler—a one-time profit-driven Ayn Randian industrialist from a despicable family who's searching for redemption—tells our young hero that true change sometimes takes just a single person doing something small. In The Lorax, this means planting a single seed.
In Mazda's case, this might mean a consumer trading up to Mazda's SkyActiv line of engines, which are being marketed as a greener alternative to the status quo.
The 2010 Mazda 3 received an EPA-estimated 24 miles per gallon (MPG) in the city and 33 MPG on the highway. The 2011 model promoted in coordination with The Lorax movie improves on that to 28 mpg city / 40 highway. (The "Green" section of Autoblog has a great layman's introduction to the technology behind SkyActiv.)
Meanwhile, the eco-praised 2012 Toyota Prius gets an EPA-estimated 51 mpg city / 48 mpg highway. Far better than the Mazda 3, for sure. But Mazda is looking at a different consumer group.
A look at Mazda's other commercials for the new Mazda 3 indicates the automaker is targeting the performance enthusiast. Mazda is not trying to steal market share from the Prius as much as it's trying to steal share from, for example, the Dodge Charger.
The 2011 Dodge Charger gets an EPA rating of 18 mpg city / 27 highway. The sport sedan 2012 Chevy Impala? The EPA gives it 18/30 mpg. The sporty Mazda 3-like Toyota Venza crossover? The EPA gives it 19/26. By comparison, driving the Mazda 3 means an increase in fuel efficiency of at least 25 percent over some of the model's competition. And when it comes to the on-road nationwide norm, the Mazda 3's mpg ratings far outpace the United States Department of Transportation's data stating the average US automobile gets 17.1 miles per gallon.
By no means is a Mazda 3 with SkyActiv Technology an electric vehicle like the Chevy Volt. But as Chevy is already learning, getting the average consumer to make the leap from combustion engines to electric vehicle is plagued with roadblocks, from a lack of recharging infrastructure to espionage-like chain emails of disinformation about the costs of charging the Volt to radio blowhards like Rush Limbaugh. During the much inflated Volt battery fire fiasco, Limbaugh said Chevrolet was "a corporation that's trying to kill its customers." Chevy, meanwhile, announced it will idle Volt production for over a month.
This recounting of the Volt's market woes ignores the fact that it still requires electricity to power the EV, meaning coal, nuclear or some other dirty power production, all of which are no friend to the trees, Truffula, oak, or otherwise.
If automobiles are one of the greatest environmental threats, that means changing driving habits and attitudes is one of the best ways to combat climate change, and it would seem partnering with Universal's The Lorax film adaptation with a carmaker would be the "best" (i.e., most impactful) possible tie-in option. Sure, it would be best for the environment if everyone who saw The Lorax gave up driving and started riding bicycles, but that isn't going to happen — so isn't it at least a step forward if a number of people are motivated to switch up and nearly double their fuel efficiency? The environment doesn't care about whether or not conservation comes from a place of misled self-righteousness. (Indeed, The Lorax's young hero only wants to find a Truffula tree to impress the tree-loving Audrey.)
It's worth noting that, before he established his name and fame writing and illustrating children's picture books (of which The Lorax was his favorite) under the Dr. Seuss moniker, Theodor Seuss Geisel was a cog in the giant industrial machine condemned by his tale of Truffula trees.
For years Geisel worked on Madison Avenue as an illustrator for advertising campaigns. The University of California-San Diego hosts a wonderful collection of Geisel's campaigns for advertisers including Standard Oil and Ford, as you can see at top and below:
Perhaps the most interesting of Geisel's corporate clients was General Electric and NBC, with the former acquiring the latter and then selling it to become what is now the Comcast-owned NBCUniversal, the mega-media corporation that produced this week's hit adaptation of Seuss' The Lorax.
For all the product placement in the top movies of the last decade, visit our Brandcameo product placement database.