Happy Feet: Tap-dancing penguins selling drugs

hf3.jpgMy weird background of journalism, advertising, advocacy, and parenthood blend into a Molotov cocktail of media literacy, so when it comes to playing ‘spot the spin’ it’s pretty hard to snow me.

Ergo, Warner Brothers’ Happy Feet cartoon penguins cozying up with pharmaceutical giant Roche to give parents a dose of ‘flu fact awareness’ leaves me cold. Icy even.

It’s chilling to think that an animated cartoon is being used as a product placement hook to sell paranoia, prevention, and pop-a-pill solutions to families everywhere in a big bucks deal that would make your head spin. (and not from the flu)

Said to be the first liason of its kind, this promo is blatantly creating market demand for their Tamiflu drugs with profit-driven motivation in a fuzzy blur between public health and ethics.

Commercial Alert is wary about pharmco-consumer direct marketing; but this kind of new pharmco routing via KIDS and animation crosses an entirely NEW line and ups the ante in profit-mongering.

Cute penguins? Yes. Pure as the driven snow? Hardly. Yesterday those danged dancing spokespenguins flapped around just about every kids’ portal I hit while doing research.

You can’t ping a website without one of their Flu Facts banners in your face linking to earnest warnings of over 40 million flu cases a year…Cleverly, these are unbranded banners, meaning Roche’s Tamiflu is not mentioned by name.

Big whiff. It’s almost worse that way…

Kids are lured by the Hollywood hype of the winged waddlers, while parents see the dire “Flu Facts: in-depth influenza info” as a resource.

Neither come close to “combining disease awareness and education with pop culture and creativity,” as they ‘intend.’

They’re both simply revenue generator engines to drive traffic to their respective launch dates: Nov. 17th for the movie, and ‘tbd’ for flu. (insert ominous music score here)

One airport ad has a half-dozen penguins on a snow-swept landscape explaining how to get speedier relief from flu symptoms. (get it? Bird-flu-penguins-avian-epidemic, whew; hey, it’s a reach, but clearly some branding guru in my field sold it up the food chain to the studio bigwigs)

Then there’s Roche VP, Mike McGuire who says Happy Feet, “serves as an ideal platform for communicating to consumers, especially moms, about the flu.”

Gotta tell ya Mike, as a mom, I’m duly unimpressed with the unethical cross-the-line targeting of both kids and parents with tap-dancing penguins selling drugs.

My beak is flapping big time on this one.

Hang on, it gets worse.

The Flu Facts site suggests patients ASK doctors for the antiviral even if they’re not sick yet…

It also recommends you see the movie, AND gives a handy zipcode calculator for an added pang of panic to see if the flu has routed to your neighborhood. (but it’s unbranded, recall?)

Granted, they DO mention the CDC flu vaccine among the series of facts but add “Not only can antivirals help treat the flu, they can also prevent you from getting it.”

Hmn. Maybe THIS is why Tamiflu sales rose to $1.3 billion during the third quarter of this year, an increase of 88 percent over the Q3 ’05? Ya think?

Harvard Medical School professor Dr. Jerry Avorn, (author of “Powerful Medicines”) also called Tamiflu’s effectiveness marginal, with “slender” benefits, and over-stated claims. “It’s not as if this somehow cures the flu or treats the flu. It just will shorten the symptoms by a day or so,” Avorn said.

Then there’s the whole profitable and perilous avian flu angle along with the stockpiling correlation…

Dr. Avorn worries that indiscriminate use of the antiviral could make Americans resistant, “This is beyond just wasting a lot of people’s money,” he said. “This is about encouraging people to use – and use up – a drug that is one of the only drugs we will have in reserve in case avian flu strikes. I think that is irresponsible.”

I’ll say.

And speaking of ethics and responsibility, let’s turn our attention to today’s brand spankin’ new FDA warning of “abnormal behavior” slapped onto the Tamiflu label.

Yes, that’s right, what timing! The surprise announcement from the feds came today just in time for a CYA precautionary measure to mitigate risk, since it was approved for kids almost a year ago and the feds REJECTED changes to the label despite reports from Japan of children’s delirium, hallucinations and unusual behavior.

Recently, over 100 NEW cases of ‘abnormality’ have surfaced (occurring between Aug. 29, 2005 and July 6, 2006) which is a stunning spike that MAY finally slow down the Hollywood hype train a bit.

Sadly, it’s one of the few things that will.

Harsh reality is that the fear of legal beagles and class action lawsuits can get the attention of corporate pocketbooks and public health officials far faster than a dozen dead kids in Japan, apparently.

But we’ll see. Both Roche and the FDA said that severe cases of the flu can spark the abnormal behavior flagged in the new updated label. So there’s already wiggle room.

Personally, I find the whole snow job distasteful.

There’s an inherent conflict of media messaging (do we really need to be peddling drugs to kids? Think about the irony!) plus we’re once again allowing the ‘anything goes’ dollar-driven exploitation of children…economically, psychically, and now physically.

The tap-dancing little Mumbles hero may be a cutie (my daughter’s ‘awwww’ factor was hi when it popped up on her screen along with the catchy ‘Jump ‘N Move’ trailer) but it’s all a bit too much to stomach…

The ubiquitous commercialism (Mumbles has a MySpace page where you can get Hallmark e-cards, wallpaper, screensavers, ringtones, graphics, mobile games, showtimes and more by SMS texting ‘HF’ to 43892) will soon be everywhere and the merchandising of plush toys, tie-ins and contests have already hit the big box retailers and billboards. (3 just on the commute stretch of 15 miles to my meeting today)

Sponsors & tie-ins? Expect a ton of ’em…it’s a family flick so the demographic will cut a wide swath, so far, Burger King, Pepperidge Farm, Perfectmatch.com, Color Me Mine…etc. etc.

Bottom line? Even if the movie is warm-n-fuzzy (I’m told it is) the gargantuan product placement is calculating and cold.

As kids and parents unconsciously tap into the massiveness of this mega-multiplatform integration, my Happy Feet aren’t dancing…



  1. Great writing…keep it up! I hope your readership grows like a tropical rainforest (few left that there are).


  2. Great article. I am in the process of putting together a talk on vaccinations and I was looking for the Happy Feet comercial for download, but I have not been ablt to find it.

    Any help would be appreciated.

  3. Quick note to post that I’ve had to delete a couple of youth comments due to language issues. Please know this article is about the advertising tie-in and ‘flu facts’ profiteering, NOT a movie review. Happy Feet itself has received numerous accolades from parents and kids who applaud the message as sweet, caring and positive…The movie is not being ‘dissed’ here…

    …However! The manipulative ‘back door’ concept of using a kids movie (& cute animated penguins) to sell pharmaceuticals to parents and create market demand via promotional tie-ins is setting a disturbing precedent.

    Anyone’s welcome to leave a comment/express alternative views, but civility is our policy, ‘k?

  4. I think the message is very weak!!! You’re focusing on the penguins and not the message. I have seen that commercial more times than I can mention and the message did not resinate with me or my husband. He ended up getting the flu and did not get to the doctor in enough time to get on the sold called medication.

    So I do not think the campaign is very effective.

  5. The message/campaign etc. may very well be weak, I venture no opinion there, for as you say, I’m focusing on the product placement tie-in with the penguins, since that is MY concern.

    Animated icons that appeal to kids should NOT be used as a backdoor marketing opportunity for sales, particularly if you’re a pharmaceutical giant like Roche.

    It’s akin to “Joe Camel” and smoking imho; ethically wrong to peddle an adult product using characters that appeal to kids, blurring the lines of promotional marketing in a family film.

    It’s ‘Roche product placement’ amped to the max but cleverly veiled in a ‘flufacts’ generic sleeve.

  6. Hot blog. Keep up the good work.

  7. So, you’ve lived long enough to raise a child and are just now realizing that movies advertise things with the intention of making money? How could they? You mean to tell me they wan’t to sell me things, things that could make my nose stop running? Those manipulative CEO’s with thier money and thier, ummm, thier money, and how they wan’t to make money and, well how could they. I happen to think that a business should develope a product, and then not try and sell it to people, and apparently you agree.
    Sarcasm aside, this is America, and one of the beautiful things about our country is that individuals and groups of individuals are free to be ambitious, free to use what recources they have to succeed. No matter what field you are in, one of the fundamental elements of success is persuasion. Just like your webpage would fail if people stopped caring what you had to say and developed thier own voice and rationality instead of depending on yours, corporations would also fail if they did not attempt to persuade. I think you should realize that without the evil capatalism you rail against, thier would not be an internet for you to blog on, much less a society of people whose fanancial success affords them enough free time to care about your opinion. Mumbles is cute, but it’s your responsibility as a parent to make sure your children can discern between entertainment and marketing, but apparently you think it would be easier to simply eleminate that responsibility by eleminating the presence of marketing in media.

  8. Not at all, Clay. Movies & drug companies can (& do) make money however they choose…But if the two want to partner and have animated penguins selling pills, don’t dupe parents into being misled they’re getting info from an unbiased ‘flu facts’ information line, as if the CDC or public health were involved.

    Roche is flying under the radar to protect their brand from backlash of unethical and needless pill pushing, since doctors maintain Theraflu isn’t effective administered as a prophylactic elixir!

    Roche Pharmaceuticals is clearly operating under a vested interest to move product, and nowhere in the movie or ads is this ever clear…it’s tidily tucked away as if it were an ‘informational’ ad.

    As far as “ambition” being the carte blanche hall pass for business interests to be “free to use whatever resources they have to succeed” I STRONGLY disagree on ethical grounds of public health & kids’ well-being.

    There IS no corporate conscience when we blur the lines of branding like that.

    Maybe YOU think it’s fine for pharmaceutical companies (or tobacco/alcohol/whatever) to ‘make money’ on the backs of kids using every persuasive technique in the book, I don’t.

  9. I keep so busy trying to keep aware of all the hidden problems of rearing our children today that I only have time to READ your articles, not WRITE all my comments on them. However, I must send you this message, hoping my SECOND language of English & the spelling are not as bad as some of those above. I cannot see how ANY person could take TIME to be that critical of your blog & not take TIME to edit his comments before sending. Or perhaps they should take some adult night classes in English, also? I suspect both critics have a “hidden” purpose, themselves, if they find fault with YOUR writings which many of us find so useful & informative! I say Thank you or “Arigato gozaimas'” for Shaping Youth.

  10. Thank you for your kind thoughts; though I must add that we appreciate ALL comments…typos, criticism, and counterpoints (as long as they’re handled w/civility!)

    It’s very important for us to hear other points of view and how people think differently on these issues, for that’s what dialogue is all about in terms of furthering understanding…
    Without it, we’re just talking to ourselves.

    I certainly can see how grammar could be a sensitive issue with one who has taken the time to learn a second language, and the formal use of same…especially since I can’t even muster my old high school French without botching it! It’s an arduous task, memorizing all the spelling & such, so hats off to you, and please continue to comment when you can. Appreciatively, A.

  11. What?s Going down i am new to this, I stumbled upon this I have found It positively useful and it has helped me out loads. I hope to contribute & help other customers like its aided me. Good job.

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