Saturday, August 6, 2011

Watching Childhood Memories be Dismantled for Modern Marketing

Towards the tail-end of college, there was a car commercial that started playing for some kind of Chevy sports car. It was a typical commercial, showing the car driving around being appealing while captions spoke of the various accomplishments of this car that would make you better than other people, thus satisfying your biological desire to be better than others without stepping outside of societal norms. But what really caught my brother's and my attention was the song: it was a Stone Temple Pilots song. My brother turned to me and said, "Oh my god! A car commercial aimed at us! They think that was have the money to go out and buy a new car!" This was a stunning realization: the world of marketing was no longer pushing me and my brethren to buy sugar cereals, action figures, or skate clothing: they wanted us to step up and get into major debt and they were using the language of my generation to encourage it.

This was the first step in a dramatic trend, where I would start seeing things from my childhood being recast, revamped, and screwed up in order for me to spend money.

It was interesting enough at first. They reissued He-Man toys in collector boxes, made from the original molds. Only, since they were now collector things, they were four times as expensive, and while my brother and I bought them, we never opened the boxes. If only my childhood self could see me buying a He-Man for $20 and not playing with it!

Novelty T-Shirts started having retro-prints of G.I. Joe, Smurfs, and original Nintendo characters.I started seeing my little sister's old toys ending up on toy shelves again (though, they looked sluttier this time). And commercials kept playing music from high school.

Then, it got bad.

The Transformers Movie came out. My college students were excited about this because the commercials showed massive amounts amounts of action and explosions. The original Transformers stories were character dramas, so I was already bored. But when one of my students told me that "Bumblebee is a badass new Camaro," I was blown away.

"No," I said. "He's a VW bug."

"You need to see it! He's next-year's Camaro. It's so sweet!"

That's when I realized that I would never, ever, watch the new Transformers movie. Here, the infamous Micheal Bay had sold out a character for advertising. Bumblebee was supposed to be the weakest Autobot. He was a VW bug because he had no power and relied his wits and the other Autobots for safety, thus he had so much in common with the humans that he befriended them against his leader's orders. Damn, that's a character! Now he was just some hot-rod that hangs out with people because he's cool. My childhood character who I could relate to was sold to a marketing company so that people could revel at the new Camaro regardless of what it did to the story line.

The latest travesty of storytelling is the Smurfs movie. I was a huge fan of the Smurfs when I was young. While there is plenty of fault to be found in them, they were still interesting little characters, each with an talent, and that talent also exposed their flaws of character (Smurfette is another story for another post; we'll leave her and her talent of being a girl out of it). They struggled against an enemy who was at once frightening and comical and lived in a world where they relied on each other and nature rather than technology.

So what do they do with the movie? Make it CGI, of course. Set it in New York so that they can put in modern-day product placement. They surround the characters with real-life adults. As a parent who grew up with the Smurfs, they want me to relate to the adults in the movie. They want my kids to watch it because they're mindless and will watch anything in CGI, presumably. Kids would rather have the Smurfs interpreted through a kid's eyes, not an adults (even if that adult is someone as awesome as Neil Patrick Harris). They will replace profanity with the word "Smurf" so that I will laugh and the kids will miss the jokes, only watching the show and not experiencing it.

(I may as well throw in that they are remaking two Schwarzenegger classics from my childhood, too, "Conan" and "Total Recall." I have issue with this because both of those movies were as near perfect as an action movie can get and are just as good now as they were then. Why remake? Oh, because they can make money without being original or creative.)

It's a shame, really. The source-material for Smurfs, Transformers, and whatever else comes along was really good stuff. Remember that for every successful show and/or toy from your childhood, there were a hundred that sucked: Smurfs, Transformers, Rainbow Bright, Cabbage Patch Kids, and what have you were the survivors of a flooded marketplace and they survived because they actually spoke to a part of us that needed attention at that time. Now they're being rehashed in board meetings where producers are looking for a large enough built-in audience to make a big opening weekend. No one is talking about story, they're all talking about marketing. No one is talking about character, they're talking about product placement. None of them have your childhood's back. Instead, they are selling it to you all over again as an abomination of how meaningful it was to you in the first place.


Ms. Laura said...

Check out Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein (2011)
It's been going on for a long time.

David Agrava said...

And let's not forget that the cartoon network is having another go at the Thundercats and also destroying the Looney Toons with an updating there as well. Creativity has gone underground as it is no longer popular or thought of as profitable. And, of course, creativity takes so much darned effort as to make it hardly worthwhile to pursue.

Sol Smith said...

Yeah, I caught some of that Looney Tunes remake trash this summer. Why would they do that? I mean, those characters were made to reflect generations ago and they just don't work in modern contexts. And Thundercats? When will they learn when to quit?