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The Horrible Marketing Campaign For The Lorax Just Gets Worse

The Lorax endorsing an SUV was bad enough, but then they had to get the kids involved. What could the people behind a new campaign to use The Lorax to sell kids on convincing their parents to buy a Mazda possibly be thinking?

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.

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  • Otis

    Just because you give money to schools does not justify you getting to teach our children what you want.  Keep your damn money if that is the cost.   It's just sad our schools need the money so badly that they will let any company pimp their crap to our kids for a few bucks.

    The Lorax was and remains my favorite childhood book.  I was raised in a logging town and I saw first hand what unregulated industry will do for money.   We let them take too much and the jobs went away anyway, once there were no (not enough) trees left.   

    How can those responsible for this movie have missed the key point of this story?  Whoever sold out the rights to The Lorax should be ashamed, especially if it was his family members.    

  • Merinastudio

    This is actually INCORRECT.  The tour was not about marketing directly to children---quite the opposite in FACT. The tour went to DEALERS to promote the Test Drive campaign---encouraging them to ask their customers, the driving public to do one simple act--test drive a car and Mazda would donate the $25.   For the school portion of the tour--Mazda made it possible for NEA to do what it has done for the last few years with the Cat in the Hat---bring books and reading to the students and a donation for the school library. Mazda helped bring the Lorax rather than the Cat because or our reading partnership. We normally give $1,000 for school libraries why? because they don't have the money for books. and we couldn't because of budget cuts.
    Unfortunately in Alexandria, VA and  At that one and only school and no other school on the tour, the mazda rep mixed the message for the dealers.  This was never about asking the kids to ask parents to test drive.  The other places (and I was on the west coast tour) the Mazda person talked about reading and reading only and donated the check for the school library so they could have more books.  
    Did you know that the Alexandria school did not have a librarian because the position was cut? no music teacher because that position was cut? books 20 years old?  most of these schools don't ave the luxury of parent teacher associations who raise money for those positions or have so many more books in their library or even in children's home------It is so unfortunate that it became the marketing story.  
    have you volunteered in local schools and read or donated books or found a local business to help?  I have. I've gone into a school where the librarian asked for books on grief because someone always lost a family member on  the weekend.  I know of a school librarian whose "library" was a cart of books and I've volunteered at a school where the students get tattered hand me down books from the more affluent schools whose parents think they're so generous.
    Are your brash and creative solutions helping these kids and their teachers get the resources they need?

  • Erin

    Is Mazda "doing some small amount of cash based good" with its $1,000 checks to schools, or is it just paying for hands-on, direct and unfettered marketing access to our children? The ROI on going to schools to directly market to children, who then go home to influence their parents' purchasing decisions, must be worth every penny. If they sold one car per school they're still ahead by $20k...

  • JEG

    What an absolute train wreck! My favorite story from my childhood bastardized by greedy people that don't quite get the purpose of the film. 

    I will be boycotting this flop of a remake.

  • Dave

    The movie is great.  The marketing may be flawed, but don't condemn the whole thing without even seeing the movie.  Many more kids (and parents) are going to see the movie than this travelling marketing show.  Net positive.