The Lego Movie is native advertising on the grandest scale ever attempted

By James Robinson , written on February 26, 2014

From The News Desk

Last night, I paid $14 to see a 100-minute long commercial in 3D. I’m far from alone. So far, people across the country have paid more than $185 million for the same privilege, which has made The Lego Movie the most popular movie in America for the past three weeks. It has also received near universal critical acclaim.

After I left the cinema it seemed funny to me that as the rise of native advertising in online media prompts more outcry at a dying industry supposedly selling its soul and misleading its readers to save its bottom line, the biggest movie of the year is an overtly branded vehicle made with no regard to the boundary between content creator and brand.

The Lego Movie is not subtle in its embrace of the corporate spirit, but who cares? It's native advertising for miniature blocks on an epic scale starting with the title. I assumed that, and a few dozen real world marketing tie-ins and product launches, would be the end of it. But the film is loaded with brand messages about the transformative power of Lego and the power of creativity. I won’t spoil the plot such as it is, but the ending breaks the fourth wall to directly spell out these brand themes in real life and show how Lego brings families closer together. It's an advertisement that plays out its plot at movie-length rather than 45 seconds.

Some might defend the branded content piece of the equation by arguing that Warner Bros. execs decided on their own to make a Lego Movie and Lego, naturally, is simply playing along for commercial gain. Not so. Before the film’s release, Bloomberg profiled the exhaustive back and forth during the development of the movie between Dan Lin, producer, and Jill Wilfert, Lego’s VP for licensing and entertainment. Massaging Lego’s brand image was key to the entire endeavor.

“If we tell a great story, it can have a halo effect for your brand,” Lin recalls telling the Lego execs.

Wilfert too speaks in fluent corporate-speak. “The focus is first and foremost on the brand and delivering quality content that is communicating our values,” she says.

Lego and Warner Bros. debated everything from whether Lego characters could kiss to how edgy the jokes could be to make the movie more entertaining to an adult audience. Lin tells Bloomberg the Lego team was "very influential on story, script, every major casting decision, every director decision.”

The rub is, it’s actually a fun film. I'm nearly 30 and it played off my own nostalgia for Lego, making good use of Lego’s dizzying array of product licenses to rope in characters like Batman, Superman, Shaquille O’Neal, and Abraham Lincoln into a silly, yet sharply written cultural pastiche.

The creators of the Lego Movie worked with Lego to tell a story about its brand in the same way as every publication from the New York Times to Buzzfeed is working with their advertisers. The result was executed on a much larger scale and stage and was something that people wanted to see and pay for.

The key, is openness. No one was tricked or misled. There was no mystery this morning why I felt favorably toward the Lego corporation. Through being so open in its motivations the Lego Movie is less insidious than something like last year’s ‘Man of Steel,’ which pocketed $170 million from over 100 product tie ins or Heineken paying $45 million for James Bond to drink their beer instead of a Martini in ‘Skyfall.’

Not every brand has the deep roots into the lives of its audience that Lego has. No audience will warm to the Walmart or Taco Bell movie in similar fashion. Brand affinity gave the The Lego Movie leverage to be a $65 million seamlessly constructed native advertisement that made no bones about what it was.

But it is so well made we’ve spent coming on a month now handing over money and clapping along. It proves, for better or worse, that we can drink content from the corporate fountain and enjoy it.

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]