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'Lorax' promotions try to balance marketing with message

Actor Danny DeVito attends the "Dr. Seuss' The Lorax" photocall at Ritz Carlton on March 5, 2012 in Berlin, Germany.

In Dr. Seuss' classic eco-parable, the Lorax speaks for the trees. In the marketing for Universal Pictures' new movie, the titular character speaks for Mazda. And Comcast. And IHOP. The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood has taken the studio to task for its dozens of Lorax tie-ins, labeling the promotions "cynical and hypocritical."

The controversy didn't seem to hurt "Dr. Seuss' The Lorax," which took No. 1 at the box office with $70.7 million in opening-weekend ticket sales. Marketing experts say a backlash to the commercialization could hurt some of the companies that have aligned their brands with the fuzzy orange creature, however.

By the CCFC's count, the movie has more than 70 promotional tie-ins, which include promotional events, branded products and online games and giveaways. "It's surprising they have that many in a movie of that type," said Robert Dahlstrom, professor of marketing at Miami University. 

Consumers probably won't take offense to the companies that have something in common with the movie's eco-conscious theme. "I think for those companies that have some sort of green positioning, or that are trying to amplify their green positioning, that's a logical and probably effective tie-in," said Yuliya Strizhakova, an assistant professor of marketing at Rutgers University. 

Seventh Generation, which makes eco-friendly cleaning products, is labeling a line of products "Lorax approved." Organic food supermarket chain Whole Foods ran movie ticket giveaways and other promotions. These companies will probably benefit from their Lorax tie-ins.

"Our partners needed to legitimately be in the environmental space," Universal's president of partnerships and licensing, Stephanie Sperber, told the Associated Press in an interview. "The brands and messages had to ring true to the Lorax story." 

Viewers might wonder what's eco-friendly about pancakes, home entertainment services or SUVs, and this is where companies could run into trouble. "Some of the companies may get more backlash because they're just kind of promoting consumption, but they don't have an environmental connection," Strizhakova said. 

"I think there has to be some affiliation with either the character or the main story," Rahlstrom said. 

Comcast, the parent company of Universal Pictures, is using the movie to promote its Xfinity TV service. IHOP is adding Lorax-themed items like frosted rainbow-sprinkle pancakes to its kids' menu and has an online game and a sweepstakes. A dedicated website says the company will also distribute bookmarks embedded with pine tree seeds and takes a stab at tying the two together with the tag line, "Planting trees can make you hungry!"

(Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal, which is majority owned by Comcast.)

Automaker Mazda's Lorax commercial for its CX-5 crossover SUV is one that might feel incongruous to consumers even though the animated commercial touts the vehicle's fuel-efficient "SkyActiv technology." Rahlstrom said inserting a brand name into a fantasy setting, of which the candy-colored landscape of fluffy-topped trees and talking animals in the Mazda spot certainly qualifies, can be off-putting. 

"Kids don't see it but I think parents do, and say, 'Why are you bombarding me?'" Rahlstrom said.