Stretching False Narratives: Toy Story 4 and Subway
Here’s what Content Strategist Manny Veiga and Account Executive Tom Korolyshun had to say about pushing a (false) narrative, media training and overdramatized storytelling.
Elisabeth O’Donnell (EO): Tom Hanks got a lot of laughs when reading that “Bo Peep has always been a strong character.” Why is it funny that Disney would push this point?
Tom Korolyshun (TK): Disney wanted to connect to a cultural touch point by illustrating Bo Peep as a strong, powerful female character. But saying she had “always been a strong character” reverse engineered the narrative to fit what they wanted.
Manny Veiga (MV): It was really funny because she had been missing from one of the Toy Stories completely. I also don’t get the sense that the makers of the first Toy Story in 1995 had intentions of developing a “strong female character.”
TK: A movie lacking a strong female presence in 2019 is likely to get negative feedback for being sexist and misogynistic, whether that’s true or not. I like the idea of proactively seeking out possible negatives and trying to reconcile them beforehand, but you still have to be authentic.
MV: If you were crafting talking points for Tom Hanks, would you have used a similar approach?
TK: I would not necessarily say that she’s always been a strong character, but say she is a strong character now in this movie. I don’t think you need to go back in time and change the past, I think you just have to brace for what’s popular now.
MV: In the first movie she was clearly a brief character, which isn’t necessarily an insult.
TK: Going off that, they could’ve talked about how she’s grown and developed. Or they could’ve created a brand new character to be the strong female.
EO: Which they did in Toy Story 2 with Jessie. I also assume Toy Story 4 includes obvious nods to current social trends, including Bo Peep being a stronger character, which will probably cover their bases.
TK: That’s what I mean by supporting the true narrative. We live in an era where there’s enough information out there that if we try to falsely depict the narrative, someone’s going to know it. Instead the story itself should support whatever message Disney wants to convey.
MV: I think that’s what Tom Hanks was pointing out. I don’t think he was angry that he had talking points. I’m sure he’s used to that, having been an actor for 30 years.
EO: Should media people adapt their training and briefing to individual spokespeople?
TK: You could. Tom Hanks probably knows to avoid spoilers by now. In Disney’s defense, those talking points probably went to everyone. Someone playing a new character, with less media training, is more likely to need guidelines.
TK: Another issue is that you don’t really need to explain Toy Story. It’s enough of a cultural phenomenon that people are going to go see it regardless of the plotline.
EO: Right, it’s unnecessary to sell how culturally relevant it is.
TK: Exactly. A movie like Toy Story can let Tom Hanks go out and just be himself. I saw him on Graham Norton for example, talking about having to record hundreds of different variations on grunts and little voice innuendos when wrapping shooting. Funny and quirky stuff like that is what makes me want to see Toy Story.
TK: Over-training someone could lead them to miss a plethora of opportunities to actually tell a good story. It’s important to remember this is a conversation, and you need to listen to what the other person is asking. There’s probably going to be something that sparks something interesting, aside from focusing on a specific word and shutting down to respond in a very specific, rehearsed way.
MV: In an ideal world, everyone would know their spokesperson on a personal level, so you could be more aware of their needs. The person at Disney who wrote the briefing doc probably doesn’t know Tom Hanks.
TK: That’s a really good point. It’s probably just a lower level staffer who was told to build the document, then was approved by a senior staffer who quickly scanned it.
EO: Imagine being that entry level person, watching Tom Hanks hold up their work on Jimmy Kimmel.
TK: Exactly! That person most likely didn’t even know their briefing doc was going to Tom Hanks.
MV: Not the nicest thing for Tom Hanks to do, though some of his points were valid.
TK: But it was authentic!
While on the topic of false narratives, Tom shared a viral Subway commercial, chronicling a young man’s entire life, complete with melodramatic music, lighting and scenes. The problem? There was no mention of $5 footlongs or any aspect of the brand (until the final eight seconds of the nearly two and a half minute film).
EO: Disney isn’t the only team trying to stretch their narrative to try appeal to their audiences’ emotions or capitalize on a cultural trend. Other companies are doing it too. How is this Subway ad a failed attempt?
TK: It’s about tying back to your brand. The Subway ad is weird because it doesn’t do that, whereas the Procter and Gamble Olympics #BecauseOfMom commercials for example, tie the emotional, relatable story together by saying the company proudly sponsors moms, which particularly makes sense where mothers are probably a core audience for their products. The kid growing up and Subway don’t relate at all.
MV: The Subway ad felt like a Saturday Night Live skit. However, just because you’re a sub shop doesn’t mean there might not be an emotional story. I remember reading about how McDonald’s is actually super important for Americans of lower economic status. They’re not just eating a lot of meals there but they’re also using WiFi to get through school or building communities such as advocacy groups. That’s a pretty emotional story that makes McDonald’s seem so much more important.
EO: What’s frustrating is that Subway could’ve crafted a successful emotional story if it made sense, maybe showing the boy taking comfort in a Subway sandwich during hard times of his life.
MV: There are authentic moments that you can jump on if you want to, but in this case what they were trying to do is line up with the trend of narrative storytelling in marketing and advertising, where everybody’s trying to tap into some sort of emotional psychological level in every single ad. This is a case of it backfiring.
EO: Sometimes the dramatic narrative does work, like the Nike commercial with women athletes and Serena Williams’ voiceover.
TK: Yes, or Nike’s Colin Kaepernick ad.
MV: But isn’t it interesting that nobody questions drama from Nike, because they do it so well. Maybe because they’ve been perfecting that voice for 30 years. You don’t really think of their ads as a commercial for shoes, you just think, “Yes, Nike should be a part of this political conversation.”
TK: To tie back to Toy Story and put the Nike spin on it—when it comes to narratives, Just Do It. Don’t talk about how you’re trying to line up with cultural trends, just do it. You don’t have to backfill for Bo Peep being a strong female character in Toy Story, just make her a strong character. You don’t need to create a grandiose, unrelated film in hopes of triggering emotional connection to fast-food, illustrate how people’s authentic relationship with the brand.
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