Remember being a kid and racing to be the first one to open a box of cereal so you could get the prize inside? It was a sweet moment, and a perfect marketing opportunity that film companies have obviously been paying attention to. Many of us are incredibly loyal to the brands we consume. We drink a certain pop or coffee. There’s a favourite cereal, soup or delicious brand of ice cream. Certain restaurants have a nostalgic charm or offer some of our favourite food. It makes sense to use food and restaurants to advertise the latest blockbuster film, because it’s the one product they know everybody will consume on a daily basis.
Branded food products might be a slightly more recent creation, but tie-ins with fast food restaurants have been around since the beginning of the summer blockbuster craze. Burger King was first out of the gate in 1977, when they sold glasses featuring the characters from Star Wars. The timing of this article couldn’t be better, as its latest sequel, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, is currently doing the same thing in Subway restaurants. Burger King released four glasses for each of the films in the original trilogy and they were all hits with collectors. McDonald’s followed this success soon after, striking a deal with Disney in the ’80s to market their films, typically through Happy Meal toys. It’s something that happens to this day, although Disney began partnering with Burger King in the mid-’90s.
The ’90s were also when these food tie-ins hit their peak. Suddenly it wasn’t just fast food restaurants offering up toys for consumers, but all types of food products were branded with film images. If you can think of a product — typically something kids would eat — chances are it’s been branded at least once before. Cereal is one of the hottest items and many older readers may remember eating E.T. cereal or digging into a box of C3POs. Things haven’t changed much, although the Canadian market doesn’t normally wind up with many of these products.
As time goes by, things have begun to get a bit out of hand, as they are wont to do. While not a film, to celebrate the launch of The Walking Dead season five, there was a hamburger created in the UK meant to approximate the taste of human flesh, based upon accounts from infamous cannibals. While nowhere near as extreme or odd, black-bunned hamburgers showed up in France for the 3D re-release of Star Wars: Episode 1 (2012). Denny’s joined the act when The Hobbit was released with a series of themed dishes, such as the Hobbit Hole Breakfast.
The biggest example of branded food used to promote a film in recent memory is undeniably Minions. Although the film was released in the summer of 2015, you can still buy all kinds of foods with Minion faces on them. In fact, while researching this article, I happened to see a commercial for Minions gummy candy on television proudly announcing that you can see Minions in theatres beginning Summer 2015. Nobody even cares if it’s out of date, likely because promotion for Minions was out of control. You couldn’t turn around without hearing about them and it reached the point that I couldn’t even talk about the movie around my kids without them launching into a tirade about how they were sick of seeing everything with Minions on it.
The one thing you’ll notice about most of these food tie-ins is that they’re almost always associated with two types of films: kids movies or those with a collector mentality.
There were some brilliant tactics though. Tic Tac created a brand of Minions Tic Tacs that were yellow and featured the faces of the characters. Tic Tacs look like Minions in the first place though — the connection was so obvious you kick yourself for not thinking of it first. Minion Twinkies is another obvious example that actually made sense, but the fact you can still find snacks and food on the shelves with Minions on them shows just how off-the-rails things became.
Despite the fact that parents may slowly go crazy filling their shelves with all the food featuring those yellow faces to satisfy their children, it’s a brilliant marketing plan. We don’t have to watch TV or go on the Internet, where we’ll run across a large amount of advertising for new films, but we do have to eat. Even if you don’t buy any of the food that happens to feature whatever character from whichever film is popular at the moment, you still wind up walking by it at least once a week, perhaps even more depending on how and where you shop. That type of marketing is difficult to place a dollar value on. If a box of Minions gummies is on the shelf of every grocery store around, how many parents and kids will walk by it and see it every day? What happens if you actually buy those products? Not only is that box in your house but you or your children are eating something out of it every day.
The one thing you’ll notice about most of these food tie-ins is that they’re almost always associated with two types of films: kids movies or those with a collector mentality. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the next big tie-in film at the moment. The same kids that might have bothered their parents to get them Star Wars glasses at Burger King in 1977 are now adults heading to Subway to pick up their own Star Wars: The Force Awakens cups. Collectors have grown in number over the last few decades, moving from secret past time to proud hobby. Would it be out of place to say that the generation that grew up on the “have to buy them all” mentality created by food tie-ins at places like Burger King and McDonald’s are now the people who obsessively buy every item of merchandise from their favourite films?
I’m not immune. I happen to have the glasses Burger King sold in conjunction with Star Trek in 2009. I also have shelves filled with strange product tie-ins given away at screenings or that showed up as incentives at various restaurants. While few are actually food-related (mainly because keeping food on my shelves for years seems like a bad idea), some have at least been filled with food at one point or another. Cineplex regularly sells cups and straw holders featuring characters from films like The Avengers and The Dark Knight, both of which I own, as well as various large popcorn buckets with branding all over them. Like many, I started on McDonald’s toys and the urge to collect has been strong ever since.
By appealing to the collector mentality, these movies ensure they’ll be in front of the eyes of consumers long after their advertising has dried up and the films have departed theatres. It’s long-life marketing they couldn’t buy any other way. That one time investment results in the fact that I’ll never forget about the Star Trek reboot or how every time I make a big bucket of popcorn, I remember going to the theatre to see The Dark Knight. This strategy is accomplishing a task that can be difficult to pull off: creating a sense of nostalgia. I fondly remember Star Wars glasses, which was precisely the reason I bought the Star Trek set. One day, I’ll remember the Star Trek set and wind up owning another four glasses from whichever the latest sci-fi film tie-in happens to be.