toy_story_three_ver10Has it really been 11 years since we last visited Andy’s toys?

As hard as it is to believe that’s the length of time since the release of Toy Story 2, which came out in 1999. Perhaps contributing to the notion that it doesn’t seem as if it’s been that long is that not only has Pixar maintained a consistent presence at the top of the artistic ladder but that the original and its sequel remain so fresh even watching them now for the umpteenth time. The stories of Buzz, Woody and the rest of the gang in Andy’s bedroom continue to resonate because they’re simple but powerful tales told well, with an appreciation for elements such as character and story and not just a desire to make a buck as quickly and easily as possible.

So now comes Toy Story 3. While up to this point the Toy Story franchise is the only property Pixar has revisited for sequels it’s not going to be the last. Additional installments of Cars and Monsters, Inc are among the production studio’s upcoming movies, pushing more original films to a couple years out.

The story for the new movie catches us up with Andy and his family, appropriately, 11 years after the last one. Andy is now about to head off to college, his little sister is more grown-up and everyone’s going through that awkward shift to young adulthood. Caught in the middle then are the toys that we’ve come to know and love from the previous movies. With Andy getting older and about to move out of the house for the first time their fate is uncertain and, through a series of events, they actually wind up being donated to a neighborhood daycare center. But these are ANDY’S TOYS and so are not content to live out their lives being played with by a group of rambunctious toddlers and so seek to escape and return to their rightful owner.

Along the way we meet a whole new batch of toy characters who already live at Sunnyside, characters that range from a seemingly fatherly teddy bear to one who has been made specifically for Barbie. But these toys aren’t as welcoming as they first appear to be and cause problems for our familiar heroes, who also must deal with the fact that the owner they seek so desperately to return has gotten older and find a new place in that new and unfamiliar world.

Let’s take a look at how, after so long an absence, Disney/Pixar has been selling this new return to a familiar batch of characters.

The Posters

The first teaser poster was debuted at Disney’s D23 expo in 2009 and, while it’s not much, it is the first to sport the “No toy gets left behind” copy, hinting that the plot of this movie would once again revolve around an adventure to rescue one of the characters we’ve come to know in the first two movies.

A series of posters was next out of the gate, each featuring one of the main characters from the series interacting with the “3” logo. Rex, Oink, Buzz, Woody, Jessie, Slinky and Potato Head all get solo one-sheets with the same black background which creates a nice, uncluttered way to present the fact that all the favorites from the previous two movies are returning in this installment.

Later posters were designed to introduce some of the new characters in this installment. Peas-in-a-Pod, Ken, Lots-o-Huggin’ Bear and all the other toys that populate the day care center our main characters find themselves exiled to. There was later a single image that brought all the new characters together with Buzz and Woody under the movie’s title.

After that came a series of posters that featured the whole cast. The first was a colorful, fun design that placed all the characters, new and old, in a hodge-podge arrangement that almost seemed like the camera was looking in to a toy box with all the characters once again focused around the same big “3” that’s been the central consistent component of the previous teaser one-sheets.

Finally, a poster was released that placed the returning characters in front of a cardboard box that’s been tipped over. Everyone looks alternatively shocked and curious and this is obviously taken from the moment they’re first dropped off at Sunnyside daycare. The copy of “The Breakout Comedy of the Summer” nicely includes the nod to the fact that much of the campaign has focused on the escape from Sunnyside as well as promoting it as a comedy to all audiences.

The Trailers

The movie’s first teaser trailer basically parades the movie’s cast in front of the camera before everyone comes back with a title treatment made out of toys, only to have Woody’s DIY version upstaged by Buzz’s high-tech version. There’s not much to it, but it is charming and achieves the main goal of letting the audience know that there’s a new movie coming out and that the whole cast is back.

The first “real” trailer starts off basically where we last left these characters. Andy is playing with Buzz, Woddy and the others in his bedroom and we then see a montage of clips that show he, unlike those toys, is growing up. That culminates with a now college-aged Andy looking at the toys of his childhood and then walking out of the room, clearly leaving his past behind.

We then see that the entire gang has been donated to a local childcare or kindergarten room, something that doesn’t sit well with them. An escape plan then has unexpected results when a “reset” of a broken Buzz leads to him defaulting to his Spanish-language settings and seeming to forget his past.

This teaser is effective at setting the mood of the movie and explaining its basic story points, but there’s still a ton going on that’s now shown and I’m guessing there’s little to nothing here from the last half of the film. So there’s still a lot left to the imagination and the lack of nice, tidy bow put on the ending might be odd to some segments of the audience who need everything spelled out for them. But for the rest of us this is all we need.

What I didn’t catch until my third viewing of the trailer is that there’s no “nostalgia/credibility reel” at the beginning of the spot. By that I mean there’s no invocation of Pixar’s previous films like there have been with their other recent releases. That’s probably because this movie *is* part of an existing franchise and so there’s no need, as in the case of WALL-E, Ratatouille and others, to make the Pixar tradition a de facto franchise for the audience to latch on to and feel comfortable with.

That lack of Pixar’s credentials is not the case in the second full trailer. We start off once again with Andy preparing to go to college and selecting which toys are discarded, which are saved and which are brought with him. As his car drives down the street we see on the street, on signs along the road and in the car window that this movie comes from the studio that brought us Finding Nemo, WALL-E and Up.

This one, though, doesn’t linger on the sentimental aspect but instead gets into the action. The toys find themselves at a local daycare center amid hundreds of others, an environment far different from Andy’s bedroom where they were treated with care and love. Here they are on unfamiliar ground and there may even be something sinister in the minds of the toys who are already there.

This trailer is a little more action-packed and exciting and certainly seems to be designed more for the kids in the audience, where the previous one seemed to be geared more toward adults who would latch on to the nostalgic yearnings it conveyed.

Three internet-only spots were created that had weird vibes and were obviously meant to appeal to older audiences. One had Buzz and Woody taunting each other over IM chat, one kind of spoofed movies like Paranormal Activity and one used something like the pacing of a car commercial. Kind of an off-kilter – and off-brand – way to start off the advertising for the movie.


The official website opens with a rotating stream of quotes from early reviews of the movie, all of which proclaim it an instant classic for the entire family, before giving way to one of the TV spots. At the bottom of the page there’s a button to enter the “Great Escape Giveaway” but other than that this is one of the cleanest, most uncluttered movie home pages I’ve seen in quite a while.

When you Enter the Site, the cast of characters is arrayed in front of you and, as you mouse over each of them, you’re prompted to “Visit” that character. Doing so takes you to information about that character as well as Games, a 360-degree view of its design as well as Video clips, a Gallery of images, Downloads and more that are all specific to the toy you’re viewing.

That same functionality is found under the “Characters” selection on the main navigation menu to the left.

Next on that menu is “The Movies,” which has information not only about this newest entry but also the two predecessors as well and this is where most of what’s traditionally found on a movie website is found. The Synopsis gives a brief explanation of the movie’s story. The News section is filled with promotional videos, mostly from Disney’s kid correspondents, talking about the film which are actually kind of cool since some go into how the Pixar animators used real dancers to help choreograph sequences in the movie and such.

The Gallery has 30 stills from the movie and the Posters section has all 24 promotional one-sheets, including the ones that have Buzz and Woody surrounded by the new characters, which are filled in one-by-one on successive images. All of these items are fully downloadable because unlike most studios, Disney realizes that if you give people official high-quality alternatives that’s what they’ll choose.

Filmakers has information on the three principal folks behind the scenes and Cast has the names of the actors next to the characters they voice but when you click through you’re taken back to that character’s profile.

Moving on, the “Games” section collects all the character-specific games that are under their individual profiles and includes a number of others that involve the whole or parts of the whole gang.

“Videos” is chock full of content that ranges from all the trailers to some TV spots to “Meet…” videos for the new characters and more behind the scenes videos. It’s really a great collection of content and, again, shows how Pixar/Disney is trying to make this site as friendly for people looking for information about the movie as possible.

Along those same lines is “Activities” which is where the kids in the audience will find lots of stuff to do, ranging from creating their own comic to assembling their custom toy to printing out coloring pages and more to take offline.

“Sweepstakes” collects a few, obviously, sweepstakes that folks can enter for various prizes. “Video Games” is a promotion for the console games based on the movie. “Live Events” has information on things such as Disney on Ice that come to your town and extend the Disney brand.

“Parks” is where you’ll find out how the Toy Story franchise has come to inhabit various parts of the Disney theme park experience. (Disclosure: Disney Parks is a Voce client.) “Products” tells you what kind of books and other material has been created that ties in to the new movie.

Finally, “Preschool” takes you to a Toy Story section of the Disney Preschool site with more games and printable activities for the under 4 set.

A series of online videos were made that were much better than the internet-only spots from earlier in the campaign. The first was made to look like a vintage commercial for Lots-o-Huggin’ Bear that had been converted from a disintegrating VHS tape. This provided some background on when the toy was created in the movie’s world and is basically funny and entertaining, which is a good thing.

The retro kept coming with a “Groovin’ With Ken” video of an interview with the iconic toy from the mid-70’s, with Ken talking about what a great life he leads despite the fact that on his own box his name is so much smaller than Barbie’s. Ken was also the star of a series of “Ken’s Dating Tips” videos that showed all the doll’s secrets to remaining popular with the ladies.

In advance of the movie Disney rolled out a new application (New York Times, 6/1/10) for Facebook that allowed people to buy tickets to Toy Story 3 without leaving the network, as well as sending a status update to your friends that you’ve done so.

Advertising and Cross-Promotions

The resurgence of the movie also brought with it a resurgence of the toy line, with lots of new additions – mainly in the form of new characters from this latest installment – and variations on the classic characters hitting shelves after debuting at this year’s Toy Fair trade show. While the Toy Story name as an actual toy line hasn’t really gone away over the years there was definitely an uptick in the year leading up to this latest movie.

Those toys got the spotlight from Toy’s R Us (MediaPost, 6/1/10), who created special Toy Story promotional spaces in their stores and setup a section of their website and put some of the aliens form the movie all over the site. Visitors who click three of them on the site will unlock exclusive content. Those who buy $25 of Toy Story merchandise in stores will receive a voucher for a movie ticket.

Energizer batteries also wanted to give out free movie tickets to see Toy Story 3 or any other Disney movie to those who bought three packages of batteries.

Insurance provider Aflac created a co-branded spot (MediaPost, 5/18/10) featuring the company’s spokes-duck, who is placed in the daycare center with the movie’s characters to reinforce Aflac’s message of reliability in tough times. The spot was run across TV networks as well as in-theaters through the National CineMedia network. A series of print ads were created and Aflac also put movie imagery on their No. 99 car for its appearance at the June 20th NASCAR race in California.

Pull-Ups took the opportunity afforded by the movie to remind people that it was the only training pants brand with Disney characters on them.

On the food front there was Sara Lee, who got their own page on the Disney website to promote their whole grains healthy food with recipes, games and more. Kellogg also got involved with a promotion on boxes of their products that encouraged users to collect secret codes they could redeem for various movie-themed prizes.

Far more philanthropically minded was a partnership with the Toys for Tots organization that placed displays in 24 cities across the country where people could donate toys throughout the month of June.

The movie’s characters got used – in an indirect way since you never see them on screen – in one of Google’s “Search Story” videos. The video showed searches being changed all over the place as the toys had one panicked conversation after another with each other, a conversation that was culled from audio bits from throughout the three movies.

There’s also been plenty of traditional advertising done. A number of TV spots were created and have been running in the lead-up to the movie, most of which take the same basic idea of the trailers and created abridged variations on those themes. So some focus on the escape plot, some focus more on the daycare center and some on the emotional upheaval of Andy leaving for college and deciding the future of his toys. They all work in and of themselves.

The character-specific posters also were repurposed as  billboards and other outdoor ads, creating a striking visual of just the character and the number “3” on a sea of black. Minimalistic and to the point, these also worked at alerting the audience that there was a new movie on the way.

Media and Publicity

The Pixar crew did make an appearance at Comic-Con 2009 to not only drop the news that Michael Keaton would be joining the cast as Ken but also to talk about the re-release of the first two Toy Story movies in 3D, a tactic being taken on in part to get people back to thinking about the franchise before this third installment hits theaters. That re-release got its own trailer, with the characters all of a sudden discovering just how exciting it is that they’re now appearing in 3D, a trailer that’s pretty fun in its own right for how it plays with the concept of something being 2D. There was also an internet-only trailer and a  TV spot that had similar fun with the idea of these characters appearing in three dimensions.

The movie was one of those brought by Disney to its D23 fan convention in September, 2009, an appearance that included a showing of a new trailer to the Disney faithful in attendance and which was followed up by the release of a new teaser poster.

The full film was later screened at ShoWest 2010 (Hollywood Reporter, 2/17/10) for theater owners and other exhibition executives.

Then Disney embarked on kind of a variation of the “Demand It” fad that’s sweeping Hollywood. The studio announced it would take the first 65 minutes – about half – of the movie to college campuses to screen what it was calling a “Cliffhanger Edition” of the film that was designed to get college kids, who were likely seven to 10 years old when the last movie came out, interested (New York Times, 5/1/10) in this latest installment. Hopefully, the strategy seemed to be thinking, giving them such an extended look at the new movie would get their interest up enough that they’d later buy tickets to the whole thing. That effort was promoted with flyers being up on college campuses asking if people would like to start working for Pizza Planet, the kiddie restaurant that’s been featured in previous movies.

The movie got lots of other publicity, including high-profile looks at some of the new characters that would be featured in this installment (New York Times, 6/11/10) and more. It also began to be looked to as the savior of the summer (New York Times, 6/14/10) as the box-office to that point was less than magnificent overall.


What a fun campaign. I’m serious, it’s a fun campaign. There are a couple missteps, namely the internet-only trailers that were created but that may be more me just not quite getting it than that there’s anything actually wrong with them since most people seemed to lap them up.

Aside from that, though there’s a remarkable brand consistency between the all the elements of the campaign that goes behind logos and other actual marketing considerations and is centered mostly, again, around the idea of this being fun. The posters, the trailers and especially the website are all fun and get the audience engaged.

Actually I should qualify that last statement and say the campaign gets the audiences – plural – engaged since this is very much a case of different marketing components appealing to different audiences. While the website is almost solely a kids-focused affair the trailers are meant to appeal more to the grown-ups and young adults, the ones who are either the same age as Andy and whom Disney/Pixar is hoping will revisit this latest entry or who the studio is hoping will once again bring their kids, who have probably only watched the originals on DVD.

Luckily the campaign works on all those levels, providing adults a movie that simultaneously is a known quantity but also – especially in the wake of movies like WALL-E and Up – promises the genuinely moving emotional impact that Pixar has become known for. Largely because those two movies were such artistic successes it’s also safe for college-age kids, the ones who were toddlers when the first movie came out, who have a bit of air cover when they suggest going to see this new entry. That’s been helped tremendously by the college-screening effort, which was kind of brilliant in terms of reaching this segment of the audience.

Without the sense that this is a chance to revisit beloved – and they truly are – characters in a new story, though, all the tactics in the world aren’t going to save this campaign. Luckily it has that in spades.


  • 06/16/10: The movie was advertised by Disney/Pixar in Twitter’s new advertising format, which inserts a topic which is legitimately trending but has yet to hit the big time into the “Trending Topics” that appear on the home screen.
  • 06/21/10: JoBlo reminds us that a third Toy Story movie was at one point slated to be a direct-to-video sequel and was basically a bargaining tool between Disney and Pixar before the two merged operations more fully and officially.
  • 01/09/11: Disney/Pixar ran a huge ad campaign in an attempt to secure the movie a Best Picture Academy Award, though whether or not that effort was largely symbolic or not was up for discussion.
  • 02/17/11: I’m not sure social media played any sort of outsized role in the marketing of this movie but that’s the focus of this story.