The Emoji Movie: How Not To Tell a Brand Story

Usually when deciding which movie to watch I ignore 80% of critics. After all, I just want to know if the film is broadly worth seeing - without getting into the minutiae of plots. (I prefer the magic of cinema to reveal the story).

There are exceptions to the rule. Take last weekend. I needed to kill a couple of hours in a shopping mall whilst my other half pottered around the shops. (There’s a finite limit as to the length of time I can follow someone from clothes shop to clothes shop, watch them touch the garments’ material and then potter on to the next fashion rail - just for them to repeat the entire process all over again).

The alternative was to encamp to a Starbucks. Yet, I am doing my best to cut down on caffeine and cakes, so the cinema seemed a better option.

Being the start of summer, film choices for adults were limited. Posters throughout the mall advertised the opening of The Emoji Movie. I checked IMDB’s star ratings. Not only did The Emoji Movie consistently receive one-star grades, but the reviews were so dire that on its opening weekend the movie had already earned ninth place in the all-time league of bad ratings.

The tsunami of disastrous reviews included:

Cancer incarnates

⭐ ★★★★★★★★★

Author: srvouriot Australia

A movie like this only further encourages tech and screen obsessed children of 2017 to suck harder on the corporate teat that has consumed their entire short existence. Products like The Emoji Movie contribute heavily to the dumbing down of culture and will only succeed in producing even more mindless and braindead drones.

There is nothing


Author: John-o-Boy-o

27 July 2017

If I was God, and I heard this product was not only being made, not only being promoted, but actually released, then I would invite Satan over to manage the heavens so I could personally eradicate my failure below. This is the sort of product - because this is not truly a movie, as the word "movie" is too suggestive of art - that corporations fawn over. And they did. Believe it or not, three major production studios *fought* to make this happen.

The Emoji Movie is an ad that you pay to see. Of course, product placement already exists in film. The Lego Movie and Toy Story both feature products as characters, but those films had heart and personality. Here, there is nothing but product placement. Anything resembling humanity is just padding for the next app to appear. How vile for a product that constantly tells you to "express yourself."

Do not watch this thing. Don't bring your kids to see it. Don't watch it ironically. Whatever your beliefs, biases, intentions, anything… do not give companies the thumbs up to feed us mediocre, heartless drivel.

Spoiler alert

… The entire plot was spoilt from the first frame to the last. It revolved around an emoji character called Gene assigned to wear a ‘meh’ (as in, “whatever…”) expression. Gene ‘lives in Textopolis (the messaging section of a smartphone). Like every emoji, Gene is eager to be selected by the phone’s user, a shy boy who turns out not to really play any significant role in the movie.

Gene messes up his ‘meh –face’ expression. He is cast out of Textopolis, marked to be deleted by anti-virus bots. He goes on the run with another emoji - Hi-5 ✋ and a code breaker named Jailbreak. They encounter a brand list of commercial apps including YouTube, Facebook, Candy Crush, Instagram, Just Dance, Dropbox, Spotify and Twitter.

At this point I want to point out that when I watch a movie, I usually feel some sense of empathy with the characters on the screen. But in this case the only compassion was for the movie’s scriptwriter who had to somehow squeeze a very light plot around heavily sponsored apps. It reminded me of working with clients who insist on getting their brand name mentioned in every sentence of content.

The Just Dance app was particularly disturbing. It featured a girl who looked like a cross between the Wicked Witch from Disney’s original Snow White and a psychotic girlfriend I dated many years back who tended to slap excessive coats of black mascara on her eyes as well as thick lipstick on her very thin lips.

I shuddered in my cinema seat.

Story selling

I imagine there must have been lots of ‘blue-sky-thinking’ millennial marketers and smoothie- slurping social-tweeting PRs in meetings – all urging brands to recognise the ‘massive global opportunities’ to be had from being featured in the movie.

If only the producers would have kept to some simple rules about brand storytelling, maybe the project could have paid off for the ‘successful’ brands which stumped up the biggest investment in the project. - you couldn’t exactly miss them throughout the 86-minute commercial break. 101 brand storytelling rules include remembering that brand storyTELLING is not a synonym for brand storySELLING.

The best brand stories are rarely just about the brand but the person using the brand to enhance some aspect of their life. In this case, from the start, that person should have been the shy kid. Perhaps with the emojis stepping out the confines of the smartphone, into the real world to help the boy deal with his coyness.

Seeing that the movie is aimed at kids –accompanied by adults to cinema – it could also have been more self-deprecating. In fact, as so many Gen Zs are emoji aficionados – by making the entire plot more intelligent and tongue-in-cheek – the film could have even turned out to be a classic with teens and younger adults.

You say, “emoji” I say “smiley’

…On the subject of adults… I am drawn back to the comments I read on IMDB. Many suggested that apart from sucking up to brand sponsors, the movie further ‘disconnected’ an entire generation, drawing them into a secluded virtual world. Luddite commentators complained that tech robs childhoods. Whilst I can see their point, I also feel that – just perhaps - such people protested too much. Today the majority of Baby Boomers own their own smartphones. In fact half the planet uses smartphones. More than half of the world’s web traffic comes from mobile phones. Over half of all mobile connections around the world are ‘broadband’, and in the past thirty days alone, more than one in five of the world’s population would have shopped online.

Top emojis on facebook

Commuting around London, I am surrounded by people of ALL ages glued to their phones. According to Baby Boomer digital specialist Immersion Active, in America Eighty-two percent of Baby Boomers belong to at least one social networking site. 15.5 percent of Baby Boomers with a Facebook account spend over eleven hours per week on the site. What’s more, more than half of Boomers on social networking sites visit a company website or continue their research on a search engine as a result of seeing something on social media.

Like it or not, connected-tech is here to stay.

2 👀 or ❌ 2 👀 = ❓

(To see or not to see – that is the question).

And what about those “smileys”? Emojis - are physically changing language. In his new book The Emoji Code: The Linguistics Behind Smiley Faces and Scaredy Cats, language expert Vyvyan Evans explains that there are 3.2 billion Internet users - that’s approaching half the world’s population. Of those 3.2 billion, around ninety-two percent regularly send emojis. (Facts which I am sure influenced the producers and featured brands when planning the ill-fated Emoji Movie).

Evans argues that just as English has always been affected by other languages – so emojis are already leaving an enduring impression on the international lingua-franca.

Emojis are regulated by an organisation called UNICODE. (Not an online offshoot of the CIA or KGB). At the time of writing, some sixty-seven new characters are in the pipeline. These include a frowning ‘poo’, as well as ginger-haired emoji and silver-haired emoji (specifically for Baby Boomers). Which speaking as a copywriter, provides food for thought (🍔4💭).

So now, having seen the movie for myself, I feel it is incumbent on me to offer my own critique: 😏. (Ignore the advice at your peril).

Jonathan Gabay

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