Is it just me, or should movie characters not be used in ads?

Buddy the Elf in the Asda advert
(Image credit: Asda)

As much as Buddy the Elf loves Christmas, there’s surely no way he’d choose to spend it surrounded by stressed-out shoppers in a British supermarket. If you believed Asda’s 2022 big-budget festive ad, however, working in the UK retail sector was all he ever wanted.

While I can’t help but admire the CG wizardry that inserted 2003-vintage Will Ferrell into a modern-day Asda, the sight of a fictional character promoting an actual brand makes me feel uneasy. Filmmakers go to colossal efforts to ensure we suspend our disbelief, so to see Buddy moonlighting in the real world feels like a cynical assault on the magic of cinema.

Of course, Buddy isn’t alone in ‘accepting’ the corporate dollar. Despite living in a galaxy far, far away, C-3PO and R2-D2 have critiqued the latest Volkswagen. Meanwhile, when King Valkyrie was supposed to be fighting Gorr the God Butcher she got herself mixed up with Direct Line insurance. It’s still not clear how that diversion fits in with the wider MCU continuity.

Or take Rocky Balboa’s famous run through Philadelphia, which has now been gatecrashed by a legion of random sports people, as the Italian Stallion effectively endorses Ladbrokes, a British bookmaker he’s presumably never heard of. We’re not sure Mickey would approve…

Even before you dive into the ethical issues surrounding gambling ads, this is troublesome terrain for a movie character. If a star wants to accept hefty wads of cash to endorse a fragrance or a coffee-maker that’s their lookout. But fictional characters have no such agency – instead, their legacy is entirely in the hands of rights holders. So when big business comes calling, these custodians have to ask themselves a question: is a short-term injection of cash more important than the ongoing integrity of a hero or villain beloved by millions?

Setting up Buddy with a work-experience placement at Asda may feel like a harmless piece of brand extension, but as soon as a character turns up to promote a car, a supermarket or insurance, a little piece of what made them special dies. Or is it just me?

Richard is a freelancer journalist and editor, and was once a physicist. Rich is the former editor of SFX Magazine, but has since gone freelance, writing for websites and publications including GamesRadar+, SFX, Total Film, and more. He also co-hosts the podcast, Robby the Robot's Waiting, which is focused on sci-fi and fantasy.