There is something wonderfully ironic about a movie that attempts to expose the dark world of manipulating consumers by using QR codes. But then, even the creators of the new film Branded (opening Sept. 7) openly admit "that meta irony is a big part of the film, for sure."
The question is, how to market a film whose message is explicitly about exposing the malicious intent of marketing strategies? QR codes, of course.
Branded is about a lot of other complex, deep topics. But to watch its trailers and to visit its official site, it would be easy to assume the film is about QR codes. Those mildly annoying square blocks of black and white advertiser-Tetris that marketers are convinced are useful and valuable litter the screen throughout the mvie. But Branded is about more than QR codes.
According to the film's website, Branded is a "dark and mind-bending journey into the surreal, dystopian society." The official description:
In a dystopian future where corporate brands have created a disillusioned population, one man's effort to unlock the truth behind the conspiracy leads to an epic battle to control the world in this visionary, thought-provoking sci-fi thriller. Starring Max von Sydow, Jeffrey Tambor, Leelee Sobieski and Ingeborga Dapkunaite.
Web commenters have compared the film to The Matrix. Others have mentioned John Carpenter's all-out-of-bubblegum B-movie classic They Live. One YouTube commenter even wrote, "The Matrix + They Live = Branded." By the way, that is an big endorsement in many circles.
Branded also has an official blog, which is a combination of in-character posts about the movie and PR-character posts promoting the film. As a film that intends to "expose" marketing, it probably doesn't help that the website uses the exact same fragmented blow-away effect used by the website of the the still-in-theaters Total Recall remake. Then again, maybe that was intentional.
In an interview with sci-fi blog i09.com, the film's creators — who are also working marketing execs Jamie Bradshaw and Aleksandr Dulerayn — say Branded "requires a certain kind of meta irony."
But the greatest irony of Branded is probably that it features fewer actual brands than a run-of-the-mill Hollywood flick. Branded's brands are largely fictional, probably because no brand would ever sign a release to be cast as a baddie.
The film's "evil" brands — The Burger ("The Taste of Freedom"); Dim Song ("Safe and Tasty"); Yepple (groan) — ring hollow specifically, ironically, because they have none of the weight of a real brand. Truly great dark commentary on marketing and branding is less explicit and more brand specific. For example, Idiocracy's buff Fox News anchors in bikinis and Costco greeters dryly repeating "Welcome to Costco, I love you" are the peak of the genre.
Asked by io9.com if the movie will give away the secrets of advertising, the creators answer, "We give you the origin of advertising — we know [that] it came from a very different place than you'd ever expect, not what's in any book. The people who knew the history of it — they're in the former Soviet Union. That's why the film is there. And it has a lot to do with the former Soviet Union, we had to do a lot of research there to prove it. We went there to do that and we found these things and these people to tell us the truth about advertising."
Exposing consumer culture is by no means a hot Hollywood topic, but there is a small cottage industry in the topic.
Most recently, there was The Joneses, a film about a perfect family that moves into American neighborhoods in order to stealthily endorse products to on behalf of brands. A year later, Morgan Spurlock uncovered the already uncovered world of product placement in Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. Spurlock's earlier documentary Super Size Me is the more effective anti-brand film, with its laser focus on taking down McDonald's.
TV hit Mad Men, while glorifying chauvinism and bad behavior, has won a heap of awards (and, ironically, advertising dollars) for portraying advertising as a load of bulls**t and its practitioners as better-dressed snake oil salesmen. Of course, 1998's The Truman Show is certainly the most elegant fictional approach to tackling the dehumanizing effect of a society commercialized to the point of nihilism.
But pound for pound, minute for minute, the most effective commentary of marketing and brand seep in society is Logorama, an Oscar-winning 2009 animated film — also by a marketing professional. It is, truly, "branded."