“The Lorax” Marketing Campaign Misses the Forest AND the Trees

Mazda’s SUV Sales Pitch a Classic Case of Corporate Co-optation

It’s the kind of cynical cross-promotional advertising campaign that might make even Mad Men marketing guru Don Draper’s head spin. A Mazda CX-5 SUV drives down a road in a pristine animated forest, past a bear, a bird, and then a pair of “humming-fish” holding placards. No, they’re not protesting the SUV’s environmental impact; they’re pitchmen. “Truffula tree friendly,” one sign reads. “Uncompromised driving,” says the other.” The characters and the setting are from Universal Pictures’ new 3D feature film, The Lorax — the Dr. Seuss book that is one of the most famous environmental parables of the twentieth century. 

And so does a warning against environmental tragedy turn into Madison Avenue farce.

With that one 45-second spot, the co-optation of environmentalism’s message about reduced consumption seems to have reached its all time low. The movie, which opened on Friday, is quite good and true to the original. The film version of Dr. Seuss’ saga about the “Guardian of the Forest” — whom AP called, “perhaps the most famous anti-industrial crusader from children’s literature” — is spot on: funny, lively, and propelled by a warning against ecocide. Mazda’s Lorax ads seem to have come from a different planet. Who at the car company (or at Universal) thought it was a good idea to have the Lorax sell a machine that’s fueling global warming?

As part of its promotional push, Mazda is teaming up with the National Education Association for its “Read Across America” effort, unveiling its supposedly fuel efficient SUVs (classic internal combustion engines; not even hybrids) at schools in 20 US cities with actors portraying the Lorax. If pupils convince their parents to test drive the new sports utility vehicle, Mazda will donate money to school libraries and enter them into a contest to win a trip to Universal Studios’ Orlando resort and theme park.   

The backlash has been swift and harsh. A group called Rethinking the Automobile launched an online petition to recall Mazda’s Lorax ads, contending: “Mazda and Universal have shamelessly turned a character who has inspired millions of children to care about their environment into a car salesman.” One petition-signer groused: “Dr Seuss is rolling in his grave.” (Although his widow, Audrey Geisel, CEO of Dr. Seuss Enterprises, executive produced The Lorax).

Over at Mother Jones, Kate Sheppard wrote: “It seems like whoever was in charge of promoting the film either didn’t get the message, or didn’t care,” and noted that in addition to Mazda, Universal “backed a long list of 70 ‘Lorax-approved’ launch partners… include[ing]… a disposable diaper company, ‘Truffula chip pancakes’ from the International House of Pancakes, and Hewlett-Packard, where you can learn how to ‘print like the Lorax.’”

This is like having the robot from Wall-E pitching Big Gulps.

Before becoming a children’s book author, Theodor Seuss Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) was an editorial cartoonist for the leftist newspaper PM, illustrator for advertising campaigns for Standard Oil (now Chevron), and commander of a US military animation unit during WWII. Published in 1971, The Lorax was obviously a parable about industrialism, consumerism, and pollution run amok. Director Chris Renaud’s delightful CGI musical version keeps Seuss’s message at the heart of the story and delivers a film which parents should love taking their kids to.

Ted (a boy voiced by Zac Effron) lives in Thneedville, a “plastic,” “fake” dystopia entirely denuded of nature. To woo teenaged Audrey (Taylor Swift), Ted sets out on his motorized unicycle to make her dream come true by giving her a real tree, instead of Thneedville’s artificial ones. In the process, like Winston Smith in Orwell’s 1984, Ted uncovers the hidden history of Thneedville beyond the totalitarian walled city’s confines. Acting on his Grammy Norma’s (Betty White) advice, he finds the Once-ler (Ed Helms), who decades earlier had encountered the area when it was still a natural paradise teeming with fun loving fauna. Contrary to the warnings of the orange, furry, diminutive, mustachioed, tree-hugging Lorax (Danny De Vito), the Once-ler felled the woodlands, using the colorful treetops of the Truffula trees to make consumer goods called “Thneeds.” The Once-ler and his family go on to create a factory to mass manufacture Thneeds for consumers, and an eco-cide befalls the once bountiful area. When Ted tries to plant the last remaining Truffula seed for Audrey, he clashes with the police state run by Mr. O’Hare (Rob Riggle), who produces air for polluted Thneedville’s denizens.

According to the Wall Street Journal, The Lorax chopped down its movie competition during its opening weekend and was number one at the box office, raking in around $70 million.

Just as Dr. Seuss encoded his environmental message in the guise of a children’s book, Mazda is turning Seuss’ allegory on its head in order to propagate propaganda extolling the supposed virtues of a means of transportation that causes greenhouse gases. As The Madeleine Brand Show on KPCC radio reported, “Mazda hoped [the Lorax] would lend his eco-credibility to another cause,” while its commercials claim its SUV carries the “only Truffula tree seal of approval.” This is greenwashing at its worst — no more than cloaking the same old fossil fuel vehicles in environmentalist garments. Mazda has sold out Seuss’s message to sell four-wheeled Thneeds.

Which brings us back to Don Draper. In one episode of Mad Men the Madison Avenue whizzes study The Port Huron Statement, the 1962 Students for a Democratic Society manifesto co-written by Tom Hayden. They do so not to help democratize the US, but to strategize how to sell to America’s emerging youth culture — which Don Draper and company view primarily as “a coveted demographic.” With its crass Lorax campaign, Mazda is up to the same old tricks. But it seems unlikely that today’s consumers would fall for something so blatant. Having been spun before, most of us know how to spot wolves in sheep’s clothing — even when they’re cartoon animals.

Former CBS News presenter Fred Friendly called Ed Rampell “the only journalist in America named after Edward R. Murrow.” Rampell has reported for ABC News, Reuters, AP, LA Times, The Progressive, and many other US publications. He has co-authored four books on the Pacific Islands.

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