Why Cars 2 Is a Branding Masterpiece (Regardless of Its Reviews)

Say what you want about the cinematic quality of Cars 2, but it’s making money. Lots of money. The latest Pixar installment made $68 million its opening weekend – and that was just in ticket sales. That $68 million doesn’t even reflect what consumers have already spent on Cars merchandise.

The original Cars movie made $460 million in theaters, but it’s sold over $2 billion of merchandise per year since its release in 2006. Therefore, it’s no wonder that both merchandising experts and Disney executives expect Cars merchandise to surpass the $2.8 billion that Toy Story 3 merchandise made last year. And who would disagree? Licensed Cars products have exploded over retail stores within the last month.  Through the Cars franchise, Disney has found the male equivalent to the Disney Princess franchise. From Cheez-Its to guitars to understandably, die cast cars, the Cars characters can be found on just about any product you can imagine.

When I went to see the movie this past weekend (the only audience member between the ages of 9 and 30), almost every single kid present was wearing some sort of Cars apparel: t-shirts, Crocs, and even one kid that I bet just rolled out of bed in his Lightning McQueen pajamas. The one girl not wearing Cars apparel clutched a stuffed Mater.

Cars toys

The studio will make a killing on Cars toys.

The studio will make a killing on the licensed products and cross promotion from the film. Before even seeing the previews, my theater was treated to a long series of commercials for other companies like Huffy and Purdue Farms coasting on the Cars brand. The commercial for Target did not surprise me since the retail giant is the film’s official merchandise partner and neither did the commercial for State Farm set in the Cars universe as I had seen it on network TV already. What did surprise me was Mater singing the State Farm jingle smack dab in the middle of the movie. I already knew that the movie was tied to multiple outside brands, but I honestly didn’t expect to see those brands end up in the movie itself.

Before we set up our soapboxes and accuse Disney of selling out (again), I do have to give credit to Pixar for not turning the film into an all-out brand war. Because what else is racing? It’s a bunch of drivers racing around a track with as many logos as possible slapped onto their cars and suits. If wanted, I bet that Disney wouldn’t have had a problem filling their CG cars with real world logos. Instead, they stuck to the made up brands of Rust-eze medicated bumper ointment and Lightyear tires.

So was Cars 2 made simply to move merchandise? Highly possible, even if the Disney executives say that the franchise continuation was secondary.  But was it still an enjoyable film? Absolutely. The plot may not have inspired, but it was entertaining, fun, and all-around likable. There was a soft ode to the late Paul Newman and plenty of clever car puns (like the Popemobile riding in an even bigger Popemobile) sprinkled throughout.

But even with lukewarm reviews on Cars 2, it looks like Pixar might be running with the “sequels to expand the franchise” idea. Earlier this week, Tom Hanks spilled that there is a high possibility for a Toy Story 4. As a self-proclaimed Disneyphile, I’m interested, but curious if Disney is simply capitalizing on a popular franchise. Toy Story 3 had a concrete ending that gave satisfied closure to the characters; I really don’t see a need to send them on yet another adventure. But if Disney has their eye on the bottom line, it’s likely that in a few summers we’ll have our chance to see another potentially heart-warming epic coupled with new merchandise.

Whether we like it or not, I have a feeling that movies for the sake of merchandise are here to stay.  After all, with the exception of Ryan Reynolds’ abs, what else would prompt Warner Bros. to make a sequel to The Green Lantern?

What did you think of Cars 2? Do you feel that movie merchandise boosts the appeal of so-so films?

Image Credits

Mandy Kilinskis

Mandy is proud to be a part of QLP’s content team. A self-professed nerd, her interests include video games, sitcoms, superhero movies, iPods and iPhones but never Macs, and shockingly, writing. Her claims to fame are: owning over forty pairs of Chuck Taylor All Stars, offering spot-on coffee advice, and knowing an unbelievable amount of Disney Princess facts. You can connect with Mandy on


  1. amy

    Awesome post Mandy! You made so many great points!!

    I thought your comparison of the Cars’ characters being the equivalent to Disney’s princesses was so interesting. You’re right! Previous to these films and Toy Story, who did little boys dress up as for Halloween? Now, every year Buzz Lightyear, Woody and Mater make an appearance at my house along with Belle, Jasmine and Cinderella. In the terms of broadening their reach, Disney certainly has that figured out.

    You also pointed out that during the movie Mater sang the State Farm Insurance jingle. Seriously?!?! At least try to disguise product placements so they aren’t so blatantly a commerical. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but couldn’t they have driven past a State Farm office instead? I understand companies are losing revenue with people fast-forwarding through commercials on TV, but there has to be a better way than having my movie’s character break out in a commerical during a pivotal scene.

    • Amanda

      I agree Amy! I think it’s great that they are making movies to appeal to young boys too. I’m sure they appreciate it as well! =)

      I recently watched “Just go with It” and they did a really nice job of including Pizza Hut in the movie. I don’t remember them saying Pizza Hut or making any strange comments on it–but it was clear that that’s the pizza place they were at. So it gave Pizza Hut the advertising it wanted, without annoying the movie goers. I think that’s how things like this should be done.

    • Mandy Kilinskis

      I figured that they could’ve disguised the State Farm ad much better, but I think that Jana made a great point in her comment. Big franchises with crazy merchandise like Cars makes way for Up and Wall-E. I think I can deal with Mater singing a few bars if it means I get another wonderful picture like Up.

      • Mandy Kilinskis

        Oh! And Disney is definitely doing more than just merchandise. In their California Adventure addition, 12 acres is devoted solely to Cars!

  2. Jana Quinn

    Great post, Mandy. Entertainment and money are tricky topics to handle together. After all, the artists want to make the best art while the people who hold the cash want the biggest return on their investment.

    In general, Pixar does an extraordinary job of being able to do both without compromising either. However, with the CARS franchise, it’s clear that the lackluster reception to the first one might have put a kibosh on the sequel… if it weren’t for the major bank that Disney/Pixar makes in merchandising. Something has to fund films with less merchandising options like UP.

    With the price of tech dropping and sites like YouTube letting creators skip the middle-man studios, it will be interesting to see how product placement develops.

    • Mandy Kilinskis

      You make an excellent point about Disney/Pixar cashing in on merchandise to fund movies like Up. In a perfect world, all movies would have the critic/audience approval of Toy Story 3 with the merchandising to match. However, I would sit through a Cars 3 if it meant another gem like Up or Wall-E.

  3. Joseph Giorgi

    I can’t really blame the studio execs for churning out unnecessary sequel after unnecessary sequel. They’re only in it for the bottom line these days. I’ve lost so much hope in the whole studio system’s integrity that I’m basically numb to exploitative and cannibalistic nature of it all. With sequels, prequels, and remakes making up 99% of Hollywood’s output, it’s tough to have faith.

    If merchandising is Disney’s number one motivator, then so be it. I’ll live with it. Pixar usually balances the creative and commercial components of their films with intelligence and originality, so I know that they’ll eventually make good on their lesser efforts — the “Cars” franchise being chief among them.

    I wasn’t a fan of the original “Cars,” so I probably won’t see the sequel, but I can’t wait for Pixar’s next project. The images I’ve seen online look really interesting. Looks like it’ll have a very unique style, so I’ll definitely check it out.

    AWESOME post on merchandising, Mandy! Great stuff. 🙂

    • Mandy Kilinskis

      Go ahead, Joe. Tell us how you really feel. 😛

      You can’t make omelets without breaking a few eggs; so if Pixar needs to make Cars 2 to fund Brave (another princess/fairy tale movie, interestingly enough), I can deal with it.

  4. Amanda

    This is a great post Mandy! =) I love the postitive way you wrote about this movie. You say that they may have made this sequel to make the most of the merchandise money, but you still make sure to point out that it’s a fun, enjoyable movie. I hate it when people cut down a movie or a business for things like that–it’s so easy to say when you’re not the movie maker or the business owner (the one the profit goes to and the responsibility falls on).

    I thought that Cars 1 was pretty good, and because of this post, I will likely watch Cars 2 at some point.

    • Mandy Kilinskis

      I’ll admit, there’s nothing about Cars 2 that screams ground-breaking, amazing, cinematic quality, but I do think it offers more than just a conduit for merchandising. Nobody needs to rush out to the theater to see it, but if you enjoyed the first, it’s definitely worth an eventual view.

  5. LK

    I haven’t even seen the first Cars yet, but because of all the merchandise you see EVERYWHERE, I feel like I might as well have watched the movie. I could probably tell you the names of these characters, never having seen the movie and only knowing because of the merchandise.

    I love Pixar movies so hopefully I’ll get around to watching Cars one of these days..

    • Mandy Kilinskis

      You’re not alone, Lauren! I know others our age and even younger kids that haven’t seen the movies but know all of the characters! Again, successful merchandising on Disney’s part…

  6. Jill Tooley

    I’m with Lauren – the films are Greek to me but merchandise is everywhere I look! In a way, this gives me the impression that the film is more popular than it actually is. Judging from the promos alone, I never would have believed that Cars 2 didn’t get great reviews or perform as well as the first one! Maybe that’s what they were going for. Either way, merch is a good backup plan for a mediocre movie…

    Excellent post!

  7. ksal

    Great overview of Cars 2 retail promotions, brands and pop displays

    Learn More :

  8. Pat Dempsey

    I found one of those cars at the local dump. It’s a red racer with “95” on sides and roof. It has a three sliding buttons on the back window (adjustments…?). How/where can I find out how to operate this car? I want to give it to a friend’s little boy!!

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