How We Came to Love Branded Movies

Uncle Drew may be the latest branded movie to hit theaters, but it's hardly the first

Uncle Drew (Summit/Pepsi)
Uncle Drew (Summit/Pepsi)

They made an entire movie based off of Pepsi commercials.

I’m of course referring to Uncle Drew — arguably pronounced and spelled “UNCLE Dreeeeeeeeeewwww” — a summer comedy that expands Kyrie Irving’s characterization of an aging, yet agile, blacktop baller from the Pepsi Max television spots that started up in 2012.

At first, a movie based on soda ads sounds peculiar, but it’s not all that surprising. We’ve always had some taste for the familiar. Hollywood has been putting out adaptations since the first cameras rolled, and remakes and reboots have enjoyed a legacy approach since. Plus, let’s not forget that the basketball blockbuster Space Jam was preceded by Nike commercials of Michael “Air Jordan” Jordan and Bugs “Hare Jordan” Bunny.

Hell, before that, Ernest P. Worrell — the same Ernest who went to camp, jail, school, and Africa — became a franchise after beginning as a relatable local character for TV ads around Nashville. Some commercial characters flourish and simply stick to the small screen. You may recall the talking baby pitching free internet that became Baby Bob on CBS or the ancestral interlopers responsible for saving 15% or more on car insurance that became Cavemen on ABC.

As a collective audience, we’ve been pretty enthusiastic about this setup for a while. Apple’s groundbreaking, screen-breaking “1984” commercial, directed by sci-fi virtuoso Ridley Scott, played only once in full, and it was during the 1984 Super Bowl. Since then, Super Bowl commercials have established themselves as legitimate (albeit brief) entertainment, making for a widely recognized competition in its own right.

We crave entertainment, wherever it comes from, and there is no group more invested in twisting our moods than brands. A consumer’s visceral reaction is earnest and sources deep, and straight-forward talk only gets a spokesperson so far. Give us some pizzazz and the ol’ razzle dazzle, and we don’t realize we’ve gone from participant to product-holder.

Today’s engagement with brands is also much more constant than it used to be. (You can thank, or scream at, the internet for that — more specifically, the enveloping hunger for all things mobile and our indefinite exploration of social media’s wilderness.) These days, we play in a lot of gray areas within the brand-consumer relationship that are more experiential or participatory, such as online games, social repostings, pop-up walkthroughs, charitable surprises, really anything with viral potential. But the trend is largely for brands to play with us rather than at us.

So we’re taken aback when we believe we recognize a branded cash grab, yet we’re quickly willing to accept it because brand involvement is just so dang omnipresent. Branded content is evolving in every arena, from artificial intelligence to virtual reality, and thus we have an increasingly difficult time separating art from entertainment and deciding where brands ultimately fall.

But we’re fine with branded movies, and we have been for a long time. Seriously, we’re on our way to a sixth Pirates of the Caribbean movie, and that’s a $4.5 billion franchise based off a Disneyland park ride from before the moon landing. Granted, last year’s release of The Emoji Movie, a critically brutalized monstrosity based off what is basically detailed clip art, had all the colorful appearances of an art death harbinger; yet it was commercially successful.

Consider how successful toys are given a theatrical treatment nowadays, with both Trolls and G.I. Joe in prosperous wide release this last decade. Similarly, we’ve witnessed Lego movies evolve from direct-to-DVD fun to silver screen smashes, and we’ll probably get new Transformers movies until we have to sift through subgenres like “robot rom-com” and “bionic buddy cop flick.”

There were less successful precursors to these films, from a trading card series becoming The Garbage Pail Kids Movie (1987) to action figures becoming the Masters of the Universe (1987). Same thing with board games. We heard the deafening eye rolls respond to Ouija, an entire film based on the weirdest thing you could do at a sleepover, and it was a box office hit (with a successful sequel). The franchise’s predecessors — 1985’s Clue and 2000’s Dungeons & Dragons, which, okay, is actually a tabletop game — were neither profitable or critical darlings. And this is all without getting beyond the more traditional discussion of film adaptations — books, TV shows, comics, video games, and the like.

So why are we more welcoming to branded movies these days?

Well, for starters, brands have taken on more personality. Social media has provided more body to brand voice and each one speaks with a sacred, omnipotent tone to the masses as much as the individual. (If there’s anywhere this development is absurdly noticeable, it’s Twitter, where brand voices range from simple snark to borderline lunacy, with enough clapbacks to shame a middle school.) Brands have us more enthralled than ever because the superfluity of social media bestowed upon them the ubiquity of billboards and television spots with the personal touch of customer service. But it’s more than that. Brands started talking like us. With brands more often than not leaning toward younger demographics, they’re largely catering to millennials (who came of age online) and Gen Zers (who have been raised online), both audiences more appreciative of unceremonious tone than older targets.

Secondly, we abandoned the divide between entertainment and advertising long ago in pursuit of distraction because we feel busier with each passing year. From nanosecond news cycles to a deteriorating work-life separation, we’re multitasking because, simply put, there’s just more. We have more access, more options, more pursuits. It fries our brain and wears us out, so we’ve coped by ramping up our willingness to take anything that breezily appears to be break. We want our brains to coast, if only for an instant, and thus we’re pretty game for whatever’s offered to us without being as phased as we once were. Truly, we’ve been exposed to so much weird in the world thanks to social media that any question beginning with “Can you believe…?” is almost inherently rhetorical because, yes, obviously we can absolutely believe it; everything and nothing make sense.

Moreover, in this rapidly becoming alien world, the familiar carries an alluring energy. It’s how “relatable” became a reliable space for comedy on social media and why Easter eggs are a prized commodity in fandom. Ready Player One presented Easter eggs as a main course a few months ago, and the Wreck-It Ralph sequel will do it again a few months from now. There’s solace to safety, an understanding we recognize that makes the impossible world seem doable.

In fact, exactly a decade ago, WALL-E hit theaters a year after the iPhone’s debut, and we were transfixed by Pixar’s loafy humans of the future, depicted as oafs forever in cruise (space)ship mentality with glazed-over eyes glued to vibrant (hologram) tablets. And there’s some truth to it, as much as we should all loathe the layup conversation starter-and-ender of “You ever notice how everyone’s on their phone these days?” Distraction doesn’t inherently mean the value of art has depreciated; it just means we’re less picky about source material.

For the most part, the message is delivered with an inherent breeziness. (Don’t expect some heavy-hitting drama about a family torn asunder over a MorfBoard.) But it’s not always light and silly. Chipotle dropped a surprisingly affecting animated short film called The Scarecrow, telling the dystopian tale of factory farms. It was a powerful, easily digestible message about the food industry that came with their logo and a mobile game. And therein lies the consumer’s moral quandary.

Branded art/entertainment isn’t inherently good or bad. Its value is, or should be, determined on a case-by-case basis. However, it can admittedly prove challenging to decipher the earnestness between “Let’s make this good and sell something” and simply “Let’s make this to sell something.” Still, the case could be made that art pieces and entertainment offerings themselves are branded; it’s just that the product is the art or entertainment itself. So while we prefer passion projects from creatives unbound, we don’t necessarily have to rule out projects from creatives with a marketing directive. We’ve always welcomed captures of life from brands as carefully and colorfully packaged takeaways. It’s just that we get so many more now with so much more nuance.

Today’s ad campaigns are more comprehensive because the means are. Digital gave both consumers and brands the opportunity to venture across an endless landscape with infinite abilities. We’re so consistently inundated with targeted advertising and sponsored articles, the line has blurred. That doesn’t mean it’s gone; it just means you have to focus to see the damn thing. We’re so used to this relationship that a movie based off soda commercials is somehow both odd and totally expected. It’s strange, but at least it’s a familiar kind of strange.

All we wanted was a Pepsi.