Brandpocalypse Now

The sequel to Wreck-It RalphRalph Breaks the Internet: Wreck-It Ralph 2, has released a trailer and it is… something else.

Obviously judgment on this movie should be withheld until the movie is seen; the original Wreck-It Ralph was a very charming film with some knowing and fun pop culture references. But the trailer for the new film makes it seem as if the references have been turned up to 11, and this time around it’s a full-on branding free-for-all.

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It’s like the opening credits of Silicon Valley have been adapted into a film.

That’s just the tip of the branding iceberg; most of the rest of the trailer is made up of Ralph and Venellope meeting Disney characters. But somehow Stormtroopers showing up feels way less intrusive than CARVANA in that second screencap.

To say that this trailer rings alarm bells for me is understating it. Before we go any further – this isn’t to say you’re bad if you like the trailer or if the trailer appeals to you. That’s great! I can only speak to my own experience with this trailer and what it says to me about our culture.

What it says about our culture is that our culture is super fucked. We see brand logos and find them to be comforting selling points – if we didn’t, Disney wouldn’t have put them so prominently in this trailer. They know that the Amazon logo elicits a positive emotion from us, on some weird level. That comes from the way we have ceded so much of our cultural space to corporations and brands. We love them, even as they exploit us.

Take for example last week’s tempest in a teapot about Roseanne Barr. She blamed her racist tweet on the Ambien she was taking, and the pharma company that makes Ambien tweeted a ‘sick burn’ at her. Everybody was cheering the pharma company and loving their brand, but it turns out this is a company that makes insulin and prices it at levels that are difficult for some diabetics to afford. This is what we do – fall in love with the face of these brands and ignore the larger problems behind them. Weirdly we’re tougher on humans than we are on these corporations, who are certainly doing way more damage to us.

There’s an argument to be made that this sort of thing is harmless, that it’s just reflecting the world as it is. But I’d counterargue that slipping friendly brands into a kid’s movie is a form of brainwashing. It isn’t just showing kids what they already see, it’s reinforcing to kids that these things are good. And make no mistake, Ralph Breaks the Internet isn’t going to stop and explain in detail why Facebook’s privacy abuses have broken the world. There may be a good natured joke that goes over a kid’s head, but it won’t be meaningful. The implicit association will remain positive for kids.

Implicit positive associations are how we got into a lot of this mess, by the way. It’s how modern advertising works – not simply selling you a product, but making you have good feelings about the company that makes the product. The idea isn’t just to sell you one widget, it’s to create loyalty in you for Widgets Inc. And as companies consolidate under increasingly monopolistic parent corporations, we increasingly enter a weirdly feudal relationship with the handful of companies that own everything.

Last night I saw First Reformed, the new Paul Schrader movie (review coming), and one of the thematic elements is how we can deal with a world that is being destroyed by our own actions. It made me think about how it is that I can know so much about the impact of climate change – how it killed 4000 people in Puerto Rico this year – and yet I take no meaningful action about it. How I just sit back and say “This is bad” and maybe try to recycle more, but that’s about it. Why am I not out in the streets every day? Why am I not laying in front of the trucks laying down pipelines? I think it’s because of the hyper-materialistic, hyper-capitalist world in which we live. I am not the most comfortable person in this world – I am unemployed for over six months now – but I’m still comfortable enough that I don’t want to rock my boat so much. We’re watching the world die and we’ve become so comfortable in a world of capitalism and materialism that we don’t do anything about it. And these corporations, all of whom are making a profit on the destruction of the planet, want to make sure that we don’t get so uncomfortable that we actually take action.

I know, I know, this is a bummer and not positive and not spiritual. But I think it’s important, and I think it’s important to look at stuff like Ralph Breaks the Internet with a discerning and critical eye. We live in a very broken system, and it’s important to notice and call out all the ways that broken system shows itself to us. One is here, with the placement of corporate advertising within a children’s movie. To let this go unnoticed is to cede the minds of our kids.

By the way, check out this concept art from the movie:

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Notice that the brands are parodies? Somewhere along the way Disney decided not to parody but to include the actual brands. They knew better, but they chose this other path instead.

Maybe Ralph Breaks the Internet is great, and ends with Ralph punching Mark Zuckerberg square in the head for helping Trump win in 2016. I suspect I’ll never know the answer to that, because it’s hard for me to work up the urge to see a movie that is selling itself on the friendly logos of the brands that control our world.