Artificial Intelligencer

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Forcing It on Force Friday II

4 September 2017

#BrandManagement  •  #CustomerExperience  •  #UserExperience  •  #StarWars

Rey awaits at the Target entrance

I go way back with Star Wars, like Han and Lando. It was a major influence on my childhood and it still has a significant hold on my imagination. At its best, it's truly inspiring stuff.

At its worst, it's a crass marketing machine.

When Star Wars was originally released — before it became known as Episode IV: A New Hope, a subtitle which was added for a re-release after the movie's overwhelming popularity demanded a sequel — the movie played in theatres for more than a year. In Denver's cowtown days, that was an exclusive run at the Cooper. Yes. Only one theatre in all of greater metro Denver had Star Wars (the next closest was up in Boulder). It was a modern movie palace boasting 70mm projection and 6-track Dolby Stereo. It's long since been razed and replaced with a Barnes & Noble.

People queued up to buy tickets at the box office, then they turned around and queued up again to get good seats.

Toy merchandising was a new concept at the time. Planet of the Apes did it to an extent. Star Wars put the concept into hyperdrive. And, under the auspices of George Lucas, a priority for the marketing and the merchandising was to create hype — by way of a less-is-more shroud of secrecy.

Back then, even Kenner's annual toy catalogs ran heavy in black ink — page after page in the Star Wars section featured black boxes that read "TOP SECRET" and indicated the products would not be revealed until the related movie was released.

Now, in 2017, secrecy is a rarity. It's all about social sharing, it's all about instant gratification. Props to Ron Howard for his job on hyping the (still untitled) Han Solo movie on Twitter, while maintaining a sense of the tease and keeping things relatively mysterious.

Aside from Howard's appreciation for the "old school" hype, now that Disney owns Star Wars, it's a different universe. Some of it's for the better (Episode VII was pure joy, while Lucas' prequel trilogy still requires some effort to enjoy). On the marketing side, it's at times a matter of epic Disney overkill.

I stopped watching Good Morning America a couple years ago. It had turned into nothing more than a crass shill for Disney products (Disney also owns ABC, which airs GMA). No idea how crazy it was this past week, with hype surrounding Force Friday, Sept. 1, but I'm sure it was bad.

Control! Control! You Must Learn Control!

This time around, for Force Friday, the hype has hit a fever pitch ahead of the release of The Last Jedi, further supported by a stab at augmented reality that brought the Star Wars universe to some of the world's most famous landmarks (such as the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Gamla Stan in Stockholm and Lumpini Park in Bangkok — a smart move to help build the sluggish fan base (in my estimation) in Thailand).

An AR BB-9E in front of a cardboard BB-8

My reaction has been a series of ups and downs. In the Lucas days, the Porgs would've been one of those "Top Secret" items. Now they're everywhere, more than 3 months before Episode VIII's release. Same for BB-9E, BB-8's First Order "twin," which looks even more like VINCENT from Disney's The Black Hole.

Since I was out and about running errands on Force Friday, I stopped by the local Target to check out what's going on. A Target ambassador helped me find Sphero's new R2-D2. Turns out Target had a whole section at the back of the store, away from the standard toy section, specifically set up for Force Friday activity. They were one of the Target stores that opened at midnight — for 2 hours — as part of the hype. The guy helping me was a little annoyed with the opening, further agitated by the fact only six customers showed up.

That's part of the overkill. Another part is the massive selection of STUFF — and that criticism comes from a collector who enjoys novelties and knick-knacks, but one who's also sorta graduated into putting those funds into more unique knick-knacks (or, more appropriately, "artifacts") collected while traveling around the world. (That's the influence of another George Lucas property now owned by Disney, Indiana Jones. In my world, Jones trumps Skywalker.)

In short, Force Friday felt a bit "forced."

Some of the Last Jedi items are nice additions, the things thoroughly expected, such as the next round of 18" Big Figs. Others need a little more refining. For example, a couple versions of the Porg need more time in the incubator. As mass-produced products, they're not nearly as cute as their source material.

At Toys 'r' Us: To the left, off camera, are Justice League toys

The displays are awkwardly placed. Target and Toys 'r' Us naturally put them at the front of the store, but with no indication as to where to go next. For Target, that's a problem since the stuff is spread out in two different sections, on opposite sides of the store. For Toys 'r' Us, at least the one I visited (as part of an AR experiment), that leads to questions as to why the toys directly to the left of the entrance display are from Justice League instead of Last Jedi.

I'm sure Yoda would admonish Disney to learn control. Quality control. Quantity control. Retailer control.

Forced Augmented Reality

But the biggest disappointment revolves around the ballyhooed augmented reality tool in the Star Wars app.

Perhaps this is where Disney has decided to exert an Imperial amount of control.

Promoted as a treasure hunt and social media contest (with a trip to Hollywood for the Last Jedi premiere as the grand prize), the idea is cool. In the app, scan certain store displays or online images in order to unlock holographic images of characters and record them in photos or videos, then post them on Twitter and Instagram with #Sweepstakes and #FindTheForce.


But the phone's camera has to be in constant spitting distance of the source image. That's debilitating to creativity. Snap a shot of friends standing next to an in-store display with an AR character embedded in the photo? Uhhh... That's a limited vision. That's pure marketing without leveraging wider potential.

Returning home from Target, I was so disappointed when I clicked on the coins collected in the app following each new source scan. The app says "Tap to View Hologram." Well. No. It pulls up a factoid about the character in a hologram style, not the holographic AR character itself.

BB-8: Option 1, AR View

BB-8: Option 2, Holograph View

Jedi Mind Tricks

My Toys 'r' Us experiment: Take a standard photo of the displays then try scanning the photo at home.

It worked. Now I've added some mobility into the picture (pun intended). The display and online ad characters can be rescanned to bring back characters like Maz Kanata, but the source has to remain in the camera's view. So I'll access them on my iPad for Phase II of the experiment.

Phase I experiments

The app also has a separate augmented reality section that's strange. In order to unlock it, one of four Star Wars posters has to be scanned. I downloaded a couple posters from and was able to unlock K-2SO and three other characters, but that's hardly intuitive for the masses. Those posters — based on text in the app — are apparently supposed to be on display somewhere for people to have their picture taken next to them, like the Last Jedi displays.

Jedi Life Hacks

It took a lot of awkward contortions with the iPad Pro (9.7") and my iPhone 7 Plus, but the end results at least show promise for where the technology is headed.

The augmented reality option on the Star Wars app offers four AR characters (Stormtrooper, Flametrooper, BB-8 and K-2SO). Each can be displayed as an AR version or a holographic version and each offers three video clip options, including sound effects and dialogue.

The lack of a shadow makes BB-8 look like a sticker or a really bad Photoshop image

Positioning the character so the shadow would fall out of frame (if it existed) helps make the image look more realistic

True Story

Back when I was a kid (okay, a younger kid), I actually stressed out wondering if I'd be able to afford collecting Star Wars figures after "growing up," while living as a responsible adult with a wife, kids, a mortgage.

The wife and kids never materialized (not yet, anyway) and — thankfully — I've picked up much more expensive hobbies that have supplanted my interest in collecting every Star Wars action figure out there. At least I think my hobbies are more expensive now — world travel, a MINI Cooper S, U2 tours. There are so many Star Wars action figures being produced these days — different lines, different sizes — I can't even fathom how people keep up with them all.

But. Yeah. I've got a Porg sitting on my sofa right now.

A plush Porg from The Last Jedi
My Porg (from Ahch-To). He's resting on a cushion from Jim Thompson's House (Bangkok). On the wall behind him, a print from 221B Baker Street (London).

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