The brand stories of our lives

Cheetos socks worn on the South Lawn of the White House during a screening of “Flamin’ Hot,” in Washington, June 15, 2023. (Photo: NYTimes)
If there’s anything more American than apple pie, it’s Coca-Cola, Levi’s, and Harley-Davidson. With faith in most American institutions — from the government to the press to schools — floundering, brands might be among the few things a consumerist society can still believe in.اضافة اعلان

No wonder so many of the latest movies tell the stories behind these beloved brands. Think about how many films this year are corporate biopics: “The Beanie Bubble,” “Tetris,” “Air,” “BlackBerry” and “Flamin’ Hot” (as in Cheetos). And of course, there’s “Barbie,” an actual sponsored ad of a movie, created with Mattel, and the first in a projected package of at least 13 product-centric movies. Whereas an earlier flurry of business-related movies focused on flawed founders and frauds (the origin stories of companies like Theranos, WeWork, Apple, Facebook), this latest wave feels downright celebratory.

Clearly there’s an appeal to these behind-the-brand stories. But why now — and what exactly are these movies celebrating?

The 1980s and ’90s, for one thing, which in these movies looks like a relative golden era. It was a time before media fragmentation, when Americans shared cultural touchstones. It was a time before doomsday politics, when the social landscape still emitted a spark of optimism. It was before our AI-threatened gig economy, when more paths seemed open to corporate success. And in these movies, it was a time when the right nerd/ne’er-do-well/eccentric with the right combination of charm, chutzpah and ingenuity could make his or her dream come true. Could make other people believe! All you needed — or so we’d like to think — was the right story to sell.

And the stories told here are even true stories or somewhat true stories or a “fictionalization” inspired by “real people and real events,” per “BlackBerry,” (also, in this case, actually Canadian) or as “The Beanie Bubble” concedes in its onscreen disclaimer, “There are parts of the truth you just can’t make up. The rest, we did.” In the case of “Flamin’ Hot,” whose inspiring tale was punctured by an investigation by The Los Angeles Times, the story is barely true at all. But that didn’t get in the way of the filmmakers, whose lead character, Richard Montañez, a former drug dealer, makes his way from janitor to marketing executive at PepsiCo. Well, what could be more American than throwing in a little myth alongside the facts? “In this world, there’s no such thing as just a janitor,” Montañez tells us in one of the voice-overs that tend to hum through these movies. “We all write our own stories. We create our own destinies.”

This is the self-made, bootstraps way our culture likes to see itself. “I mean, that’s the whole point of America, right?” runs a voice-over in “The Beanie Bubble,” “Work hard, build something good, get yourself in the right place at the right time and boom!” The ending of “Tetris” shows its Russian inventor immigrating to the United States as the Pet Shop Boys intone, “Let’s make lots of money.”

In short, these are movies about the American dream — alluringly set before the bubble behind that myth burst.

To make the dream work here requires a heavy dose of nostalgia and stagecraft. A central element is the greatest-hits ’80s and ’90s history montage of commerce and culture, brand names and generational touchstones. The opening sequence of “Air” runs through Cabbage Patch Kids, Kodak, the 1984 Apple commercial, Rubik’s Cube, Mr. T, Wham! and Wendy’s “Where’s the beef?” In “The Beanie Bubble” we get the full ’90s suite: freed Mandela, Rollerblading, O.J. Simpson, brick phones, Tonya Harding, AOL, the Spice Girls and Anita Hill. Soundtracks pump out INXS’ “New Sensation,” Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian” and Europe’s “The Final Countdown.”

Success is like a video game — usually solo player — with the requisite risks and rewards, bonuses and bonanzas, good guys and bad ones. Play it right, and investors will go for your pitch. You’ll reap a consumer bonanza. Your market share will increase. Your stock prices will rise. Your personal net worth will go through the roof!

And play is paramount, because at heart, these stories fulfill a childhood fantasy about getting all the toys and grown-up gadgets, whether plastic doll, bingeable snack, video game or supercool sneaker. The brands being celebrated are accessible things most people can acquire and accumulate — additives and collectibles rather than necessities.

In these cinematic renditions, technology offers a future of promise. “BlackBerry” opens with a clip of Arthur C. Clarke prophesying a future in which it will be possible “for a man to conduct his business from Tahiti or Bali just as well as he could from London.” Analog fetishism permeates “Air” and “Tetris,” with their pixelated screens, homey VCRs, car phones, pay phones and references to things like “the tape deck in the car.” A Game Boy tends to show up at least once onscreen. These are movies for kids who grew up on “Star Wars” and the kids whose parents made them watch it. They allow us to relive the days when tech felt incontrovertibly good.

Days when making good things brought not just fun and good feelings but also lots of money. By the end of “Air,” Michael Jordan is a billionaire; Nike’s revenue was more than $46.7 billion in the 2022 fiscal year. In “Flamin’ Hot,” one of the last lines onscreen notes with pride, “Flamin’ Hot Cheetos is a billion-dollar brand.” (As for the “Barbie” movie, itself a Mattel product, its box office bonanza is presumably just a fraction of the money it will make revitalizing the brand.)
With faith in most American institutions — from the government to the press to schools — floundering, brands might be among the few things a consumerist society can still believe in
It’s easy to see these movies as a triumph of banality, the next step up the marketing ladder from the waning Marvel Cinematic Universe. Clearly, a shrewd business calculus plays a big part. There’s a built-in audience for a wide array of recognizable and beloved IP.

But if we set aside all cynicism over what these movies are selling, the appeal clearly rests on something more profound. These are stories in which regular people could still make it — and make it big. Told at a time marked by a gaping absence of hope, when a longing for shared values runs deep, they provide a feel-good, reaffirming vision of what America at its best is supposed to offer. The melancholic irony is that the brands of yore are seen as the place to find all that.

The clincher scene in “Air” has Nike’s marketing hotshot Sonny Vaccaro saying to Jordan, “We need you in these shoes not so you have meaning in your life but so that we have meaning in ours.” How sad if that were entirely true.

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