Brands in Games

Here’s a brand-related thing from one of my favorite TV series that might be interesting to think about.

In the tv series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, there are a few scenes where a robotic character – John Henry – engages in play with a number of Lego Bionicle figures. As John Henry is built around a Terminator endoskeleton and with similar programming, he takes this very, very seriously. It’s one of those scenes that could come off as very cheesy and painful but succeeds on the strength of Garret Dillahunt’s acting.

Here’s some of them.

So, why does this work? To me, it’s because it’s all tied up with the character of John Henry.

  1. He’s a child-like AI and playing with toys helps him develop.
  2. Playing with the toys allows him to talk about ball and socket joints, demonstrating his advanced level of thinking despite his demeanor. It also allows him to use his logic to challenge the faith-based approach that Ellison had tried to convince him of earlier.
  3. It’s pretty creepy to see the Terminator who had hounded the Connors for two seasons playing with Lego.
  4. Reciting the lore of children’s toys with serious intonation helps stress his naivety. It’s also funny. (I have no idea if what John Henry says is accurate)
  5. It grounds the series in a time and place – useful when you deal with time travel.
  6. It’s a positive take on Bionicle. It helps AIs learn to be human. It helps that John Henry is not a bad guy. Now, if Bionicle was what caused Skynet, you might have a problem.
  7. It gives Mr. Murch the technician a little character trait of being a big nerd who collects Bionicle sets.

Ultimately, I think the scenes would be lessened if it wasn’t specifically Bionicle. And my cursory research seems to indicate that Fox/Warner Bros, the companies behind TSCC, don’t have any rights to Bionicle media like I assumed they did. I can’t determine whether they asked for permission or not.

Again, my general rule of thumb would be: don’t. However, if you think you can do something particularly clever that keeps the brand in a positive light, then I don’t see where the problem lies. I’ve never heard of someone getting into trouble because they were positive and fair.

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This is the key to their success - many companies would accept publicity if it put the brand in a positive light, however, there are brands that have other considerations that come into play.

Xerox is a brand that became a household name and in doing so, they could lose the rights to that brand name. Kleenex tissues is another example … even if your portrayal was 100% positive, to protect their rights, these companies would have pursued you in court to change your copy … because of circumstances.

So, I would, even when portraying a brand 100% positively, try to come up with an alternative.

Yeah, absolutely. I’d say in 99% of cases, you’d be best served by coming up with something else.

As always, they have the money and the lawyers, and presumably none of us do. Just pragmatics.

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Here is a news story directly dealing with this issue … about “Crock-pot” being used in a show where a faulty switch caused a fire and now there is a big bru-ha-ha about it …

Crock-Pot Brand News Article

This shows you how careful writers should be.

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