?Sure, Star Wars was a seminal moment in sci-fi history. But as The Police remind us, we are merely spirits in a material world. So don’t be shocked if George Lucas’ ultimate legacy winds up being how the saga was a license for him to print money. Part of his brilliance is that he had the foresight to gain ownership of the merchandising rights for his films, a move that made him a millionaire many times over and continues to do so to this day. Along with generating income from the films, action figures and other spin-off merchandise, Lucas also earned a substantial fortune from licensing his characters to promote products that originated outside of Skywalker Ranch.
Since Star Wars first hit screens 35 years ago, Darth Vader and company have pitched all manners of dubious necessities ranging from soft drinks to cell phones. There’s no sign that this phenomenon will stop anytime soon. Why should it? Even as the brand’s artistic merits have increasingly withered, the Star Wars cash cow is still nowhere close to being milked dry. Since the quality of the ads produced vary greatly, today’s Daily List puts the spotlight on at the best and worst of these commercial endeavors (expect plenty of gags about Vader choking someone and visual proof of what a dick Yoda is). Just a quick word before we begin, for simplicity’s sake this list consists no ads for specific Star Wars products. The reasoning behind this decision is that these items could all merit lists of their own. Plus, it’s way more interesting to see how the different ways Star Wars was used to coerce you into buying crap. Just see for yourself.
5) Volkswagen’s “The Dark Side”
To tease their 2012 Super Bowl ad, Volkswagen released this adorable TV spot in which differently varieties of dogs bark “The Imperial March.” As you can imagine it is completely adorable. So much so that it makes you forget that it has about as much to do with selling cars as the prequel trilogy does with coherent storytelling. Make no mistake; you are being totally manipulated here. But who cares about cheap advertising tactics when there’s an iddy-biddy pup wearing Chewie’s bandolier? Just look at the little guy. Aww. The odd thing was that this wound up being a much more memorable spot than the Super Bowl one itself, which, great recreation of the Cantina aside, was utterly pointless.
4) Curry’s PC World
In 2011, UK electronics dealer Curry’s PC World rolled out a fun and ambitious marketing campaign that utilized Star Wars characters to promote their stores. Sparing no expense, they went so far as to hire James Earl Jones to voice Darth Vader in their spots (they got Anthony Daniels for C-3P0 as well, but this is hardly a coup because really, what else was he doing?). Of the various ads that were created, the above is the most effective due to its sensitive handling of the Wookiee grooming issue. Just because Chewie walks around without pants doesn’t mean that he’s a complete slob.
3) Energizer Batteries
There was a weird period (or, if you will, a dark time for the Force) from 1985-1991 when Star Wars was largely out of the public eye. The toys and comics based on the franchise had halted, the Droids and Ewoks cartoons had run their course, and Lucas was staunchly refusing to create any more adventures in his galaxy far, far away. Then came the publication of Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire and a resurgence in interest in the saga. At the same time, Energizer Batteries were in the midst of their hugely successful Energizer Bunny campaign. He was the most lovable corporate mascot since the glory days of Spuds McKenzie and people went bananas for his unflappable antics. Tapping into the zeitgeist, Energizer decided to have the Bunny go one on one with Darth Vader for an unforgettable 1994 ad. The spot beautifully captured the atmosphere of The Empire Strikes Back and the involvement of James Earl Jones (again) gave the ad an air of authenticity. It was hugely successful because it was clever and pushed all of the proper nostalgia buttons with its audience. For awhile, this thing really did keep going and going and going. Soon after advertisers realized that they too could use Star Wars to pimp everything from M&M’s to cell phones. So when you get to the flip side of this list, just remember that Energizer is largely to blame for this whole phenomenon.
2) Hagoromo Sea Chicken
Words fail me here, but I’ll do my best. In 1978, Japan’s Hagoromo Foods seafood company decided to promote their canned tuna by aggressively ripping off Star Wars. (Because when you think about the space saga the first thing that comes to mind is canned fish). The resulting ad is the cheeiest bastardization of George Lucas’ vision this side of Billy Ocean’s “Loverboy” video. When this thing exploded upon the Internet like a kitsch bomb last year, much was made about how horrific the music and choreography on display here is. But I don’t see it like that. Rather, I think it could be the greatest example yet of just how successful Star Wars was. I bet if you tracked Mark Hamill down right now he’d be the first to tell you that he didn’t realize he was a star until a struggling actor half a world away dressed up like his character to violate trademarks in the name of inexpensive dinner providers. The lesson to be learned here is that copyright infringement is delicious.
1) Volkswagen’s “The Force”
Last year, Volkswagen tugged the heart strings of Star Wars-loving parents with their Super Bowl ad that depicted a young would-be Sith Lord who wanted nothing more than to tap into the Dark Side of the Force. Unlike the other Volkswagen spot featured on this list, “The Force” actually is an effective sales tool for the company’s cars. By cloaking their capitalist intentions with a story that is genuinely touching, Volkswagen has created a clip that will stand the test of time (point to ponder: is this spot the 21st century equivalent of the Mean Joe Greene Coke ad? You decide). The commercial became a viral sensation because people could relate to it, and if it didn’t speak to their personal experience then they could at least chuckle at it given the knowledge of what a cultural touchstone Star Wars has become. What you see above far transcends its origins to become something far more important. It’s no longer a commercial, it’s art. Don Draper would be proud.
Hit the jump for the worst Star Wars-themed commercials ever made.
5) LTE Warp
Darth Vader is a gigantic perv. That’s the takeaway from this recent spot from Korea’s Olleh mobile phone company. It’s disturbing enough to think about Darth Vader actually shitting — which must be the worst smell in the universe — but once he utilizes the magic of the LTE Warp phones he intentionally chooses to use the ladies’ restroom. It gets even worse. Jump to the 0:15 second mark. Why is Vader lunging at that woman in the red dress? Does he think she is Padme? Or are his intentions of the more sinister/Law & Order: SVU variety? The whole affair is creepier than Palpatine hanging out with younglings. After finishing his dump — at least hopefully that’s what he was doing in there — he uses the Force app on his new phone to help the stormtroopers relieve themselves. No wonder the Empire crumbled, Darth Vader is a raging coprophile.
4) Diet Pepsi
One of the most unforgivable crimes of the prequels is how they transformed Yoda from the mischievous sage we loved in The Empire Strikes Back to a deep space Debbie Downer. And if this 2003 commercial for Diet Pepsi is to be believed, he will betray all of his Jedi ideals in order to steal some poor jerk’s lunch. For the record, it’s a big no-no for Anakin to want revenge against the Sandpeople who killed his mom yet totally acceptable for Yoda to use his abilities to score free cheeseburgers. Ain’t that some shit? I suppose we should all just be happy that this ad didn’t take place at Dex’s Diner.
3) Target Black Friday Wake-Up Call
To promote their Black Friday sale in 2004, Target allowed shoppers to visit their website and get a pre-recorded wake-up call reminder about the event from celebrities ranging from Heidi Klum to Cheech Marin (between this campaign and the nightmare-worthy Burger King spots, the early 21st century was a strange time indeed for the ad industry). If your tastes ran more towards intergalactic maniacs that pot-loving comics or supermodels, you could also sign up to have Darth Vader give you a ring. Just check out the above commercial. The thought of Lord Vader getting an erection not only makes me want to boycott Target but existence entirely. Then again, I could just be bitter because I signed up and he never called me. That’s just like a Sith Lord.
2) Lipton Brisk Iced Tea
This commercial for Lipton’s Brisk iced tea that recently debuted in time for The Phantom Menace‘s 3-D makeover plays like a semi-concussed Robot Chicken sketch. It’s so aggressively annoying and proactive and in your face that it wouldn’t be surprising if Poochie suddenly appeared to challenge Yoda to an extreme skateboarding contest. Suddenly those Family Guy Star Wars spoofs don’t seem that bad.
No wait, they still totally do.
1) Diet Pepsi’s “Marfalump”
Remember Marfalump? Didn’t think so. He was Pepsi’s CGI-alien who appeared in the company’s ads around the time of Episode I‘s original release. The character was rumored to have originated at Lucasfilm, which wouldn’t be too surprising seeing how he shares Jar Jar’s ability to inspire murderous thoughts. He appeared in a few spots for the company (check out an equally irksome one in which he goes on date) before vanishing to the special hell reserved for mascots like him and Mac Tonight. From a business point-of-view it is understandable to create a whimsical character that kids could love and be inspired to buy Pepsi/movie tickets because of. It’s a little confusing why Pepsi didn’t just up and license the Gungan himself to appear in these ads instead of going through the trouble of creating the alien equivalent of Steve Urkel. You know what the worst part about this commercial is (other than the Jake Lloyd cameo)? It’s probably just a matter of time before Marfalump becomes part of the Expanded Universe. Trust your feelings, you know that to be true.
Chris Cummins is a pop culture writer and Archie comics historian who has contributed to The Robot's Voice, Den of Geek US, Philebrity, Geekadelphia, Uproxx, and Unicorn Booty. He is the co-producer and co-host of Nerd Nite Philadelphia, and is regularly involved in producing and hosting New York Super Week events. In 2014, Chris began Sci-Fi Explosion, a mix of live performance, trivia and funny clips celebrating the weirdest in science fiction that regularly travels around the United States. He wrote the introductions to the compilations Archie's Favorite Comics From The Vault and (with Paul Castiglia) Archie's Favorite High School Stories. You can find Chris on Twitter at @bionicbigfoot and @scifiexplosion.