‘What are you looking at, ya hockey puck?!’: Anthropomorphizing brand relationships in the Toy Story trilogy
As the camera pulls back from a lightly clouded blue sky, we see an iconicWestern town complete with saloon, hotel, school house and general store.At that moment, a bandit appears, cleverly disguised, with the aim of robbing the local bank.After corralling the customers into a corner, the bandit demands all of the money from the vault.When the bank manager and the customers protest, he threatens them to remain quiet . . . or else.At that moment, the sheriff appears and,while revealing the true identity of the bandit, asks him to come quietly.The bandit, with the help of his accomplice, resists, but the sheriff and his posse capture the bandits and take them to jail. While this scene could be from any number ofWestern movies, and is indicative
of the genre, the primary difference is that rather than featuring humans (e.g. John Wayne or Clint Eastwood), the entire scene is acted out through toys. In fact, the only human involved is only partially seen and exists, for the most part, behind the scenes. In this case, the bandit is the iconic Mr Potato Head, and his partner in crime is a Slinky toy dog.The bank customers include the lovely Little Bo Peep, a fuchsia-haired Dam troll doll (who didn’t own one of these, admit it), wrestling superstar Rocky Gibraltar, and a host of other toys.The sheriff is none other than Woody, a clean cut cowboy doll and star of the Toy Story movies, and his posse is a plastic Tyrannosaurus Rex. What makes this scene (and many others in the Toy Story movies) remarkable,
at least from an academic perspective (though our children could care less), is that it highlights not only the relationship between consumers and their brands (Fournier 1998), but also and more importantly the relationships among brands themselves. While it is tempting to think of brands as primarily consumer phenomena (Aaker 1996;Gobe 2001; Keller 2012), brands do not exist in isolation
(Schroeder and Salzer-Mörling 2006) or simply in relationships with humans (Fournier, 1998), but are part of complex relationships with other brands. In fact, one could argue that it is this brand-to-brand relational context (or ‘brand network’), rather than the human-to-brand context, that gives brands (and ultimately humans) their meaning, personality and agency (Latour 2005). At the same time, one could argue that without Andy (the main human
character in the movies and the owner of the toys), these brand relationships would not exist. For however much he is out of the picture in this particular scene, he is still there. To be sure, as distinctly nonhuman phenomena, brands certainly need humans to imbue them with symbolic properties and put them in motion. Branding is nothing if not the process in which producers and consumers animate inanimate objects (O’Reilly 2005). In addition, anthropomorphism moves beyond animism (Epley et al. 2007) and is often used to imbue these now animated entities with an essence (McGill 1998), consciousness (Gilmore 1919), personality (Aaker 1997), and other human traits (Aggarwal and McGill 2007). As such, humans play a vital role in establishing both brands and their relationships. As with any act of creation, though, the created object often takes on a life of
its own and ultimately exists beyond the direct control of its creators (Barthes 1977).As a result, while anthropomorphism often plays a role in the development of brands, it also plays a role in understanding brands. Likewise, rather than simply a means to relate brands to ourselves, anthropomorphism also allows us to understand brands in relation to one another. In Andy’s pretend play scenario, the branded toys are not conversing or interacting with him, but with the other branded toys. It is only through the combinations and interactions of the brands that their distinct personalities and pretend play scenario comes to life.And while Andy is the initiator of this Western-style scene, he is also the external observer. Anthropomorphism allows him to co-create and consider not merely the meaning of the brands in relation to himself, but also their meanings in relation to one another. In the process, their distinct personalities shine through and their influence on one another (and Andy) becomes apparent. While much of the extant literature has focused on how anthropomorphism
facilitates the relationships between consumers and brands (e.g. Aggarwal and McGill 2012; Fournier 1998; Hart et al. 2013; Kim and McGill 2011), this work focuses on how anthropomorphism allows consumers to perceive the relationships among and between brands and, in the process, perhaps come to better understand themselves. The rest of the chapter will proceed as follows: first, we provide the conceptual foundations for our analysis of anthropomorphizing brand relationships in the Toy Story movies; we then provide a brief explanation of our method, followed by a critical analysis of the movies, and conclude with a discussion of the research.