41 years after Dr. Seuss wrote this story, the Lorax is back, this time on the big screen as an animated 3-D musical comedy film. The movie is already a big hit, grossing more than $125 million in its first two weeks. According to Box Office Mojo, this is the second best opening for a movie concerned with environmental issues after Avatar. Yet, as some critics would claim, it should not be considered a “green” movie at all, given its massive use for commercial purposes.
The movie has nearly 70 corporate and nonprofit sponsors, including HP, Comcast, DoubleTree by Hilton hotels, IHOP, and Mazda. These sponsorships mean that your chances of seeing this little furry creature outside the theatre are quite high these days, whether it is on Seventh Generation’s diapers, on IHOP’s menu (how about Truffula chip whole wheat pancakes?), or an ad for the Mazda CX-5, the “Truffula tree friendly car”. While some people believe these sponsorships would cause Dr. Seuss to roll in his grave (actually it’s not possible as he was cremated and his ashes were scattered), others believe this is a legitimate use of a great movie to promote green products. So who is right and who is wrong here?
First, let’s look at it from the studio’s perspective. Apparently for them these sorts of tie-ins are essential especially when it comes to children’s animated films. Thom Geier, senior editor at Entertainment Weekly told CNN.com that “without added revenue from movie-themed toys, fast-food tie-in deals, DVDs and related books, family-friendly fare won’t get made.” Universal Pictures added that they tried to look for partners who provided some sort of a good environmental choice for consumers. I guess it would be naïve of anyone to expect the studios to act differently, although I’m curious to know what so green about Truffula chip pancakes at IHOP. Somehow you get the feeling Universal was a bit flexible with its environmental criteria for sponsors, if there was one in the first place.
None of these sponsors was grilled for their use of the Lorax image like Mazda. Its new CX-5 SUV is promoted using The Lorax themes as you can see from its ad. This model is using Skyactiv, Mazda’s innovative technology that improves fuel efficiency without compromising performance, which boasts the car’s highway fuel mileage to 35 mpg. Mazda of course has no problem with using the Lorax to promote its SUV, claiming it’s the most efficient SUV on American highways. As Dan Ryan of Mazda’s government relations office put it: “That’s the kind of car we think the Lorax would like to drive.”
The debate over the use of the Lorax by Mazda basically reflects the debate we have for years about green consumption and whether the solution should be to green up existing products or look for more radical and advanced solutions. Those who are in favor of green products will probably see no harm in Mazda’s campaign, while those who believe green products are basically just alternatives that are less bad would probably see the campaign as inappropriate use of the Lorax, or even greenwashing. They would claim that the Lorax would probably prefer biking or walking, or even taking the train, but definitely not SUV, no matter how green it is.
Yet, the problem is not only with the message (would the Lorax really drive SUV?), but also with the audience. Mazda is bringing now its SUV to elementary schools across the nation as part of the National Education Association’s campaign “Read Across America tour — Driven by Mazda.” The tour, according to Fast Company’s Ariel Schwartz brings a costumed Lorax to elementary schools to read the book to children and gives a $1,000 check (courtesy of Mazda) to the school’s library. Mazda also donates $25 to the NEA’s public school foundation every time a kid convinces one of their parents to take a Mazda test drive at the local dealership. There is also incentive for the kids – entering a contest for a family trip to Universal Studios.
“I track school advertising for a living. This is among the most outrageous examples of any school advertisement program I’ve ever heard of,” Josh Golin, associate director of the Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood told the Washington Post. Golin has a point – this campaign sounds like it is taken from a chapter of No Logo on corporate advertising in schools, and it makes you wonder how a company like Mazda thinks that using the Lorax to promote their cars through elementary school children is a smart move. This sort of behavior seems to cross the fine line between what could be considered by some as a legitimate corporate strategy and inappropriate marketing tactics.
The example of Mazda shows that some sponsors may have taken the use of the Lorax a bit too far, making its usage more difficult to justify. This is where stakeholders get into the picture. The only ones who can stop companies from misusing the Lorax are stakeholders who will voice their concerns and show their dissatisfaction from the cynical use of this little furry creature. Eventually they are the key to ensure corporations will be accountable for their actions, not Universal Studios or anyone else. Just like Dr. Seuss says in the Lorax: “UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” Well, let’s hope it is.
Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Department of Business Administration, CUNY and the New School, teaching courses in green business and new product development.