In a Manhattan subway station, a super bummed-out kid is looking at a poster featuring the mangled body of a toy cowboy that clearly represents Woody from Toy Story. The culprit for the cowboy’s death? As evidenced by the tennis shoe striding away, it’s Chucky the murderous Good Guy doll. The poster is part of a clever marketing campaign for the Child’s Play reboot, out next weekend, and is just one of a series featuring Chucky violently mutilating the beloved Toy Story cast. But while the posters are a top-notch and well-executed troll job, sure to catch attention, putting them up in public spaces where kids can see them is simply a shitty thing to do.
Look, I’m not clutching my pearls over the content of the posters. In fact, I find both the concept and the execution pretty top notch. There’s a poster of Chucky roasting T-Rex down to the bone, stabbing Mr. Potato Head with a chef’s knife, holding a dismembered slinky dog over a campfire, and shooting Buzz with his own ray gun. In terms of viral marketing, it’s a damn good play, particularly when trying to catch the box-office momentum from Toy Story 4, which releases the same weekend. It makes complete sense to leverage the Pixar’s offering in order to draw a stark contrast to the re-emergence of the sardonic and murderous doll. The ad execs pushing the horror flick would have been dumb not to take advantage of the moment.
But that doesn’t keep them from being assholes in terms of ad placement. Because the very reason the campaign makes sense — the release of Toy Story 4 — also makes it problematic for the millions of kids tuned into messaging around the Pixar offering. They’re primed to hone in on images of Woody, Buzz, and the gang. So they’ll be drawn to the sight of Woody’s hat or Slinky Dog’s backside, only to come to the horrific realization that the image is terribly wrong.
It’s not just hysterical parent arm-waving to suggest that the posters could be traumatizing to kids. There’s no doubt that kids will be adversely affected by these images. There’s a couple of really good reasons that this is the case. First, children have no context for the images they are seeing. They don’t get that the pictures are tongue-in-cheek. They have no frame of reference, having never seen the R-rated Child’s Play films. They take the images at face value. And at face value, stripped of their adult playfulness, the images are horrific. A bloody knife protruding from Mr. Potato Head’s bowler hat? Really?
From a developmental psychology perspective, there are additional complications. Children, well into elementary school, have not developed that part of their brain that can conceptualize time, distance and intention. This is exactly why kids get so frightened and panicked by the scary parts of family movies. They can’t conceptualize the fact that the villains they see on the screen are not real. They don’t get that the images aren’t happening in real time, in their immediate environment. Parents can tell them it’s pretend all they want, but that’s not what a child’s brain is telling them. In terms of the posters, there’s no way for a kid to understand that what they’re seeing is not, in fact, the end of the characters they assumed they would see in the theater. In other words, putting the posters in public spaces where kids can see them is simply irresponsible and needlessly cruel.
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Why not keep the campaign online, or relegated to adult spaces, like those screens above the urinals in bar bathrooms? I’m not faulting the marketers for their creativity. I’m faulting them for their thoughtlessness. It’s not like they didn’t consider children might see these images. More likely, they weighed their options and decided that a couple of scared and scarred kids were worth pushing a, probably shitty, horror flick. That’s pretty reprehensible.
It one thing to be creatively clever, but it’s important to remember that messing with a kid’s emotions shouldn’t be considered as child’s play.