Somewhere over the pitch deck: a brief history of The Wizard of Oz in advertising

Chips Ahoy swaps Dorothy for a cookie

The UK is collectively tapping its ruby slippers together after the launch of Halifax’s new ad campaign for its home mortgage products. In a clever production we see Halifax enter the nostalgic world of Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion and the Scarecrow using a mash-up of new scenes and existing footage from the 1939 classic.

But this isn’t the first time the world has seen the iconic family film tied in with advertising.

I worked at Warner Bros in their licensing team for four years, where I learned The Wizard of Oz is one of its most commonly requested properties for use in advertising campaigns.

One of the campaigns I worked on in 2012 was with Australian dairy company Bulla Dairy, who wanted to do a modern take of the film. This didn’t include any existing footage or music, but instead licensed character likeness and thematic elements. The 30-second ad shows their version of Dorothy getting on a school bus and encountering elements from the film such as a pointy witch’s hat and a boy holding a toy resembling Tin Man.

After arriving home we see her kick off her ruby slippers and enjoy a bowl of ice cream on the sofa while her dog, who looks an awful lot like Toto, watches. In a nice touch, a card on the fridge reads: ‘There’s no place like home’.

My favourite ad that leverages The Wizard of Oz is one for M&M’s that dates back to New Year’s Eve 2003. Much like the Halifax campaign, this mixes existing footage with new material, this time animation. The 30-second spot by BBDO inserts three M&M characters into the truly iconic end scene, changing Judy Garland’s lines slightly to highlight a world where M&M’s don’t have colour.

In 2009 Chips Ahoy cast a cookie as the star of its spot, replacing Dorothy but ultimately being eaten. The campaign by DraftFCB was all-new animation, using thematic elements and character likeness.

General Electric has also tapped the timeless film for its Smart Grid technology. In 2009 it launched a Super Bowl spot that featured the character of the Scarecrow singing his famous tune ‘If Only I Had a Brain’.

This, again, came from BBDO New York, whose creatives seem to have a soft spot for the 1939 film.

More recently, in 2015 Xfinity launched a campaign during the Oscars that was a very unique approach to The Wizard of Oz. The 60-second spot shows Emily, a seven-year-old girl born blind, who describes what she pictures when she watches the film. It was very well received and gathered a number of industry accolades for agency Goodby, Silverstein & Partners New York

Not all brands have nailed it, however. In 2000 FedEx pulled its Wizard of Oz-themed commercial because it was seen to encourage children to breathe in inhalants. The spot debuted during the Super Bowl and featured the Lollipop Guild using helium balloons to get their high-pitched voices back.

This caught the attention of the National Inhalant Prevention Council’s director, who stated that the ad suggested “it was OK for young people to put some sort of gas into your body”.

So, the question beckons – what is it about The Wizard of Oz that makes it such a popular choice for advertising?

At Born Licensing we often work on campaigns that license films, television shows and characters in one way or another. A lot of scripts and concept materials that are shared with us find ways to leverage elements that have nostalgic appeal.

For example, the characters of the latest Moneysupermarket campaigns (He-Man, Skeletor, and now Action Man) come with an existing awareness across generations. They are bursting with cherished memories, taking the viewer back to earlier times in their lives such as their childhood.

Similarly, The Wizard of Oz is one of those films that has universal appeal. Kids love it. Grannies love it. And everyone in-between loves it. It’s timeless, and a lot of the elements in the story are still relevant today.

An advertiser that finds a way to creatively tap an iconic film like this will reap the rewards. It will likely be talked about and shared on social media. However, it does come with some risk. Consumers can be quite sensitive to seeing their favourite movies and characters being tied in to a product. It must be done right, while showing respect to the adoring fans.

Here’s hoping that the new Halifax campaign will be placed in the pile of great The Wizard of Oz advertisements, rather than alongside the work of FedEx.

David Born has been in the world of character licensing for over 10 years. He has held senior positions at Warner Bros and Cartoon Network, and currently runs Born Licensing.

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