This week, The Emoji Movie comes out. It’s a movie based on an app of icons that has developed into an entire segment of our lexicon. Conceptually, the film explores a world where these icons, which all have personalities that adhere to their outward appearance, coexist within a metropolitan area. While it’s an odd concept, turning a non-gendered logo/mascot into a text’s hero is nothing new.
Almost 30 years ago, 7UP’s Cool Spot logo was turned into a protagonist for Virgin Game’s 1990 NES game Spot: The Video Game. The box art of that game—which is a terrible checkers simulation—is the first instance I’ve found of the personification of Cool Spot. 7UP literally just took a red dot and added legs, sneakers and sunglasses and...viola, you no longer have yourself a red dot, but a cool red dot guy.
In the late 80s/early 90s, food and drink brands absolutely saturated the advertising market. And not only were brands like Pizza Hut, Pepsi, Little Caesars and Taco Bell everywhere, but they were the most inventive, epoch-defining commercials. Hip, wacky, youth-oriented ads filled the zeitgeist. Hell, Spot: The Video Game wasn’t even the only video game based on a food and drink brand. The same year, Capcom released Yo! Noid, an NES game about The Noid, the mascot of Domino’s Pizza who was famous from the “Avoid the Noid” marketing campaign. The campaign had this alien-adjacent creature inexplicably ruining pizzas with his flying vehicle, the Pizza Crusher. In Yo! Noid, the titular character has been summoned by the mayor of New York City to stop his green-skinned doppelgänger from causing ruckus. Also inexplicable, the Noid’s reward is the very thing he lives to destroy: pizza.
Yo! Noid’s gameplay is exceedingly pedestrian and quite odd in concept. This is most likely a result of the game being a Westernized branding of a Japanese game called Kamen no Ninja Hanamaru. Why Capcom chose Domino’s as the brand to dress Hanamaru in, I’m not sure.
Cool Spot, 7UP’s mascot, truly entered our vocabulary three years later in Cool Spot, for SNES and SEGA Genesis. I remember playing it in my parents’ bougie friends’ basement. We would go over for the occasional dinner, and after poo-pooing the Ethiopian food or whatever they made in complete disregard for the palate of an 8-year-old, I would recede into the basement to take Spot on some Uncola-branded adventures.
Cool Spot isn’t exactly complex or a perfect game, but it is a ton of fun. From what I’ve played (I never got too far) of the side-scrolling platformer, the first level and the following bonus level are the majority of the game’s attempt to carry out any significant 7UP branding through the gameplay. In the first level, Spot beachcombs for other, non-personified red dots while dodging sand crabs. Aside from the oversized 7UP bottle that makes an appearance, the marketing here is more reliant on making a connection between the beach and the soda, subliminally characterizing it as a refreshing product you would refer to on a day of sunbathing. In the subsequent bonus level, Spot is bouncing around inside a green-tinted bottle of the Uncola. After that, the discernible marketing attempts nearly disappear save for one-ups in the form of the 7UP logo.
While playing the game, I thought about the difference between something like Cool Spot and something like The Emoji Movie—the difference between a brand adapting a logo into a video game property (specifically one in the style of Cool Spot) as opposed to a feature-length film. The most significant difference is that a feature-length film, especially one for kids, has an obligation to carry out a narrative structure in a way that an SNES game didn’t. This is often the biggest hurdle for any film adaptation of a non-narrative text. Case in point: the Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter films. They had to take a game where two characters street fight each other and spin some shitty mythology-filled narrative. An unenvious task that more often than not results in contrived conflicts and unintelligible third acts looking to take an as-the-crow-flies route to the finish line.
Video games, on the other hand, of Cool Spot’s proportion don’t have that narrative obligation. The main priority for Cool Spot was to navigate increasingly nuanced obstacles with accessible gameplay consisting simply of jumping and shooting. Basically, gaming companies—in collaboration with brands like 7UP or Disney—made basic modifications to a template that Super Mario Bros. and Sonic the Hedgehog perfected for games like Cool Spot or Aladdin, the same way Shaq-Fu or Killer Instinct were drag-and-drops into the Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat template. I also remember Michael Jordan’s SNES game Chaos in the Windy City feeling a lot like Batman for NES but with basketballs and a jersey. Perhaps oddest of all, and a closer relative to Cool Spot, was the Chex cereal game Chex Quest from 1996, which is a straight ripoff of DOOM and Duke Nukem. The Chex brand marketing here is close to invisible and highlights that video games were a complete dumping ground for these brands at the time.
As I mentioned, because of narrative obligation, branded films don’t have this convenience. Placing newly personified logos into a film is often bothersome as these productions come across as contrivances. Since they’re drawing on characters with no backstory, and these movies are driven by a marketing impetus, it’s not hard for them to feel lifeless. Along those same lines, drawing out a monosyllabic character, who at most has a catch phrase, into a protagonist with a backstory, constellation of friends/family, and extended dialogue and attitude can easily land flat and weird. (Although, every once in awhile, films like the Lego franchise come along and manage to avoid these land mines.) In a video game like Yo! Noid or Cool Spot, these mascots-cum-protagonists are merely avatars with no burden of character development, and they’re dropped into archetype programming that affords developers so much more quality control.
Of course, there will be a The Emoji Movie video game, if there isn’t already—they wouldn’t have put this into production without an omni-channel product strategy—but it won’t be the flagship text (not that being a paratext is indicative of quality—I played the Boxtrolls mobile game and it was solid entertainment) or the lynchpin product under the burden of success (in order to set in motion a continuous stream of ancillary production, sequels, more ancillary production, etc.).
That burden of success wasn’t on 7UP, or any entertainment companies the way it is now. For instance, reading this Advertising Age article from 1994 on Cool Spot is a trip. From today’s vantage, it comes across as naive, on both the writer and the businesses’ parts. But really, the success of something like Cool Spot was just novel. Currently, these types of omni-channel strategies are a given. Thank god we didn’t have to deal with a Cool Spot or Noid movie. Although, just last decade there were a ton of kids movie adaptations of products/brand mascots. Just between Hot Wheels and Tonka Trucks alone, there were six films made. But the difference is, the product-based kids movies in the 2000s were being made as direct-to-video productions. They had a smaller stage with lower stakes, and thus were only sought out by a niche audience. So it strikes me as a fairly recent development that yielding huge gains from turning any popular animated brand mascot or product into a feature film’s protagonist is a viable avenue for companies, where once turning a brand’s logo into a template-based video game was sufficient.
I know that my argument favoring what was done in the 90s as opposed to now comes across as thinly veiled nostalgia or tightly wound around personal experience that neglects what current children enjoy. Maybe kids will love The Emoji Movie, maybe I would’ve loved a Cool Spot Movie when I was a kid. I guess it’s nice to look back and see these odd products like Yo! Noid or the Chex game because they’re emblematic of a wide swath of weird games. The lack of burden of success freed up companies to play around in the market relative to now, where companies usually have to prove their brands are a success in the entertainment field starting at the largest stage.