There is a furry orange creature in classrooms across the U.S. that’s shilling for Mazda SUVs. That in and of itself might not be too surprising, but the creature is the beloved Lorax, a symbol of environmentalism for Dr. Seuss lovers everywhere.
The Lorax, a film adaptation of the children’s book that just debuted in theaters, was destined for controversy from the beginning. A storyline that condemns corporate greed that leads to environmental destruction doesn’t lend itself well to corporate sponsorship—and yet, that’s exactly what Universal did with the film, which has nearly 70 corporate and nonprofit sponsors, including HP, Comcast, IHOP, and Mazda.
Of all those 70 partners, the Mazda campaign has become a lightning rod for Lorax controversy, primarily because of a commercial where it calls the 2013 Mazda CX-5—an efficient car, but one that’s entirely powered by gasoline—"Truffala-tree friendly." The ad also praises Mazda as the only carmaker to receive "the Truffula Tree Seal of Approval."
To refresh your memory, the evil Once-ler cuts down Truffala trees to use as raw material for his products, which are making him rich. It’s not hard to see the problem with the ad: an SUV that runs on oil, a substance that comes from an industry which all too often ravages the environment, is cruising through the world of the Lorax. How could it possibly be Truffala-tree approved? And why would Truffala trees ever approve of an industrial product to begin with?
It’s more a question for Universal Studios than for Mazda—the studio approached the car company over a year ago. "They had learned about our environmental engineering program called Skyactiv," explains Jeremy Barnes, Mazda’s director of communications and national events.
Now Mazda is taking its Lorax campaign to elementary schools nationwide for the National Education Association’s "Read Across America tour—Driven by Mazda." The tour brings in a costumed Lorax to read the book to children and gives a $1,000 check (courtesy of Mazda) to each school. Mazda also donates $25 to the NEA’s public school foundation every time a kid convinces one of their parents to take a Mazda test drive at the local dealership. The incentive for the kids: entrance in a contest for a trip to Universal Studios.
The Washington Post describes the scene at one school in Virginia: "The Lorax waved and doled out hugs. The kids serenaded him with a song. And then everyone was ushered outside to see two cars up close—a Mazda 3 sedan and a CX-5 sports utility vehicle, both specially painted with Lorax scenes and both with what Mazda has termed "Truffula Tree-approved SKYACTIV® TECHNOLOGY."
We asked Dan Ryan, the Mazda official who went to the Virginia school and told the kids that the CX-5 was the kind of car "we think the Lorax would like to drive," how he ended up involved in the campaign (and unfortunately for him, in the Washington Post article). "I happened to be one of the people closest to where that school was," he says.
And what of the representative from the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood who told the Post that the school campaign was one of the most outrageous examples of a school advertisement program that he had ever seen? "It’s easy to say that when they weren’t there," says Ryan. "The fact is that we’re raising $1 million for the NEA’s education foundation and schools we visit get a $1,000 check."
Ryan is right—Mazda is undoubtedly doing some small amount of cash-based good with this campaign. But it doesn’t make sense to acknowledge that without also noting that Mazda (and many other of the film’s corporate sponsors) are missing the point. The Lorax wouldn’t drive a car; he would probably ride a bike. Or just walk.
We called Universal, but the studio wouldn’t comment about why it thought it was a good idea for the Lorax to be selling cars to parents via their children. We also tried to get in touch with the Seuss estate. Again, no comment.
Ryan claims he isn’t sure why Mazda’s campaign is being targeted by everyone from Stephen Colbert to The Atlantic: "Maybe there’s a certain sentiment against automobiles, or it’s just gotten more publicity. I really don’t know." Perhaps it’s more that there is a certain sentiment against tone-deafness.