If you’ve turned on your television lately, you’ve probably noticed something odd and disturbing. No, I’m not talking about Duck Dynasty. A recent commercial for Swiffer mops prominently features characters from Pixar’s newest movie, Monsters University. (Or was it a commercial for Monsters University that prominently featured Swiffer mops?) Subway is running ads incorporating clips from Iron Man 3. Spots for Progressive Auto Insurance now feature the “minions” from Despicable Me 2 interacting with their spokeswoman, Flo. Yet another commercial, this one from the Gillette razor company, includes footage from Man of Steel. The ad ends with the question: “How does he [Superman] shave?” Oh, what a pressing issue! Where are Copernicus, Plato, and Albert Einstein when you need them?
These advertisements are part of an alarming new trend: completely nonsensical tie-ins between motion pictures and consumer products. Hollywood and business have always been connected. Merchandising is now a standard part of the game. You loved Star Wars? Go buy all the toys and action figures. Big fan of Lord of the Rings? You can own a replica knife just like the one Legolas wielded. The Nightmare Before Christmas is your all-time favorite movie? Get yourself an entire wardrobe at Hot Topic! Those make sense. (Actually, nothing about Hot Topic makes sense, but you know what I mean.) The current crop of tie-ins, however, do a horrible job of matching the movies being promoted with the items being sold. I guarantee that there is no one anywhere in the world who will say, “I loved Iron Man 3! I’m going to go eat at Subway!” What does one have to do with the other, anyway? I saw Iron Man 3. Tony Stark did not eat at Subway. He ate shawarma in The Avengers, so if his superhero persona was being used to promote a fast-food shawarma restaurant, that would at least be understandable. But Subway?
The problem with all of this is that such ads are supposed to create a connection between something you like and something someone wants you to buy. That’s great on a company’s end, not so great on yours or mine. I don’t want to think about Man of Steel while I’m shaving. The next time I pick up a mop to clean my kitchen floor, I don’t want Monsters University to abruptly pop into my head. Unless Robert Downey, Jr. is the “sandwich artist” making my lunch, I don’t want to think about Iron Man 3 whenever I walk into a Subway. And if, Heaven forbid, I have a car accident, I don’t want to be reminded of the Despicable Me minions while I try to soothe the airbag-induced brush burns on my face. When I think of these films, I want it to be because they are (hopefully) good, and because thinking about them will bring me pleasure. Nothing else. And certainly not because some multibillion dollar corporation has colluded with a movie studio to exploit my love of cinema and condition me like a Pavlovian dog.
Aside from being patently absurd, these tie-ins should be seen as offensive to cinema buffs everywhere. Movies may be product to studios, but to viewers, they can be intensely personal experiences. We love films because they speak to us, entertain us, and move us in ways we don’t expect to be moved. When a movie is treated like a marketing hook to sell some unrelated item, it cheapens that film, taking away some of its emotional resonance. We can’t help but remember the forced associations along with the legitimate experience we had in the theater. It’s kind of like the way Orson Welles hawked Paul Masson wine. Yes, he was a brilliant filmmaker who made some eternal classics we all know and love, but when you watch Citizen Kane now, isn’t there also a tiny little part of your brain that pictures him staring into the camera and intoning that he will “sell no wine before its time”? More importantly, wouldn’t you forget that if you could?
Additionally troubling is that these commercials often run before a movie is released, as well as after. In some ways, that’s even worse because now you’ve got an association going in. I fear getting halfway through Man of Steel and thinking, “Yeah, how does he shave?” Tainting a moviegoing memory after the fact is bad enough. Tainting one beforehand is inexcusable.
What can be done about this problem? Should we all buy some other brand of mop? Eat at a different restaurant? Stop shaving? No, those things won’t help, and if you like Swiffer mops, Subway restaurants, and Gillette razors, you shouldn’t cease using them. But what you can do is turn off your TV for a moment when such ads come on. Look away. Don’t let these corporations and studios dictate how you experience a movie or its characters. Your impression of a film belongs to you. Clutch it tight.