Junk Food Film: 27 of the Best Movie Tie-Ins of the 70s, 80s and 90s
From 'Star Wars' soda cans to 'Batman' kids meals, through billion dollar deals and box office bombs. The world of junk food film tie-ins was as ruthless as it was profitable.
Movie tie-ins aren’t dead, they’re just not as fun anymore. In past decades, film licensing was sort of like the Wild West. There were less nutritional restrictions and guidelines, so fast food chains and junk food brands could exploit impressionable young kids and their parents to buy gray meet like patties, greasy fries and sugary sodas in exchange for cheap plastic movie themed treasures. No need to worry about childhood obesity, there was always a $100 million box office disappointment that needed promotion every summer. I may sound cynical but to be honest, I kinda miss those days. Sure the last thing I need is a $5.99 heart attack in a paper bag, but for a cool piece of movie merch I’d be inclined to cheat a little. Let’s take a walk down memory lane and look back at some of the best, and worst junk food film tie-ins ever.
You can’t have a conversation about film merchandising without discussing the original Star Wars trilogy. George Lucas’s visionary space opera was a cultural phenomenon and practically wrote the book on film licensing deals. We all know how Star Wars revolutionized the toy industry with its line of Kenner action figures, but what is sometimes forgotten are the other licensing partners. General Mills Cereal, Majik Market, Pepperidge Farms, Cisco Oil, a bizarre, probably unsanctioned ad for Sea Chicken and even the now defunct Burger Chef all cashed in on the craze. Maybe these sweet collectible glasses from Burger King put the Chef out of business.
WTF is Meteor? I have to confess, even though my brain is a cesspool of worthless movie trivia I didn’t know about this film before researching for this article. Meteor stars Sean Connery and Natalie Wood in a film about a giant meteor and Cold War politics. Poised to be a big summer hit, Jack-In-The Box signed on for a tie-in promotion. Unfortunately, the movie turned out to be a giant flop and a critical failure, currently holding a 5 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s fair to assume Jack-In-The Box’s rise in sales were less than....meteoric (I’m sorry).
After years of development hell, countless writers and directors falling through the cracks and the most expensive movie production up to that point, Superman was finally released to the public in December of 1978. With a relatively unknown Christopher Reeves starring in the titular role, the cast was bolstered by Oscar Winners Gene Hackman, who initially refused to shave his hair and mustache to portray Lex Luthor, and Marlon Brando, who suggested Jor-El could be a green suitcase or a bagel, seriously. After all was said and done, the hope was Superman would have similar success to the big hit from the previous year Star Wars, and while the film was very successful, it still finished behind Animal House and Grease at the 1978 box office. That didn’t stop the cash cow from being milked for three sequels. Taco Bell makes their first appearance on this list along with a a Superman IV Super Slurpee ad from 7-Eleven.
The Star Trek fan base is among the most loyal in pop culture, and while the Galaxy far far away gets all the notoriety for being a gluttonous cash cow, Star Trek hasn’t exactly shied away from self promotion either. In fact, the Tie-In resume for this franchise is among the very best you’ll see on this list, which to be honest was a little surprising to me. With 14 feature films and 5 TV series, Star Trek has promoted several of its properties through junk food in its 50 year history. KFC, Taco Bell, Jack-in-the-Box, General Mills cereal and McDonald’s have all cut side deals with the Enterprise Crew. The Star Trek fandom may be considered the most intelligent and dignified in the world of Sci-Fi, but it hasn’t stopped anyone from pimpin’ out a Klingon to sell a cheap hamburger.
Perhaps the most famous product placement deal ever, or infamous depending on perspective, was between E.T and Reese’s Pieces. If you’ve seen the film, you’ll remember a scene where Elliot uses candy to lure ET out of hiding. Director Steven Spielberg apparently learned from his pal George Lucas by recognizing a tie-in opportunity when he saw one, and offered this product placement partnership to the Mars Company for their flagship product M&M’s. Stupidly Mars turned down the offer, so Spielberg and Universal Pictures turned to Reese’s Pieces, who enthusiastically agreed. The director of Jaws turned ET into his next mega summer blockbuster and Reese’s Pieces sales skyrocketed! The ET craze was a massive marketing opportunity that was also capitalized by Pepsi and McDonald’s. Unfortunately, Atari had a much different experience with ET, but’s that’s a story for another time.
George Lucas didn’t stop with Star Wars, he teamed up with Steven Spielberg in forming what is probably the best bromance of the 80s, just edging out Hulk Hogan and Macho-Man’s Mega Powers tag team. This partnership gave us the action adventure trilogy Indiana Jones, starring Harrison Ford. Sometime after the first three films were released, McDonald’s celebrated the Indiana Jones franchise, but not with collectors cups, cheap toys or a value meal gimmick, but with actual VHS copies of the films. No pomp and circumstance here, for $5.99 you could own the Indiana Jones films, a pretty good price believe it or not. Indy also scored a deal with Diet Coke, giving us this two minute long adventure short, probably the most elaborate tie in ad ever!
I’m combining these two films because the popularity of the original led to the marketability of the sequel, even though the first film is significantly more celebrated. In 1984, Saturday Night Live alumni Dan Aykroyd teamed up with writer Harold Ramis and his SNL pal Bill Murray to bring us Ghostbusters. The film was a massive success, not only did it clean house at the box office but sold a ton of toys, merchandise and even breakfast cereal. The film even produced a number one hit single for the titular track by Ray Parker Jr (sorry Huey Lewis). When the sequel hit theaters in 1989, advertisers lined up to collect on the Ghostbusters wave, which also was propelled by a popular animated series. McDonald's, Coca-Cola and Hardee’s ran promotions but the most memorable partnership was with Hi-C who gave us the Ecto Cooler! If you found this gem in your lunch box as a kid you felt like the King of the Cafeteria.
Terminator 2 is revered as one of the best action films of all time. Not only did it live up to the high standards of its 1984 predecessor The Terminator, but was also a landmark achievement in stunt work and most audiences first experience with CGI. With James Cameron at the helm, it’s no shock to anyone that this film went on to be a massive hit, and Subway made its rare foray into the world of tie-ins with the “Thirst Terminator” 32oz collectors cup, paired with a sub that cost only a $1.69.
Certainly one of the most elaborate and memorable movie promotions of all time is the partnership with Demolition Man and Taco Bell. Starring Sylvester Stallone, Wesley Snipes and Sandra Bullock, this futuristic, sci-fi action comedy teaches us about the legend of the three seashells, and that Taco Bell has won the chain wars, “now all restaurants are Taco Bell.” Not only do the characters visit a futuristic, upscale version of the restaurant in the film, but Taco Bell ran a special promotion in the restaurant called “The Demo Deal”. This promotion was so memorable, that Taco Bell celebrated the 25th anniversary of Demolition Man at Comic-Con 2018 by recreating the upscale restaurant from the film, and those lucky fans in attendance were actually able to try this alternate reality Taco Bell.
In terms of its cultural relevance today, Jurassic Park is probably the biggest film of the 90s. Everybody knew this would be a hit, Steven Spielberg directing a movie about dinosaurs was almost a can’t lose at the box office, not to mention at the toy store. Universal studios spent $65 million in marketing for the film that was “65 years in the making”, that’s two million more than the films budget. By June of 1993 Jurassic Park was inescapable, and for a 8-year-old like I was, the movie event of a lifetime. Oddly enough McDonald’s refrained from Happy Meal Toys, probably fearing the movie may be too scary for children (a lesson learned from the year before, but more on that later.) That didn’t stop the Golden Arches from shamelessly capitalizing on a sure fire hit with a dino-sized value meal, with collectors cups featuring dinosaurs from the movie. Everybody wanted to be part of the Jurassic Park hype and the McDonald’s/Jurassic Park combination was a roaring success, laying the groundwork for future fast food tie-ins.
When the original Jurassic Park went on to be the highest grossing film of all time, before being unseated by Titanic, a marketing partnership with Universal for the sequel was a no-brainer. Unfortunately The Lost World didn’t live up to the expectations of the original, but it still went on to be the third highest grossing film of 1997. Probably the healthiest tie-in on this list comes form Yoplait Yogurt with their flip and win campaign, but Cinnamon Toast Crunch rescued your sugary breakfast with Cinnamon Sugar Dinosaur Tracks. Finally, Burger King took a page out of their own tie-in playbook with some bitchin' new Lost World wrist watches.
Remember Congo, the box office behemoth about a gorilla that turned into a cultural phenomenon? Ok, maybe not, but that’s what Paramount Pictures and director Frank Marshall thought Congo was going to be in the summer of ‘95. After the box office success of 1993’s Jurassic Park, Paramount bought the film rights to another Michael Crichton novel called Congo. So certain it would be a summer hit, Paramount invested a ton in marketing for the film, eventually partnering with Taco Bell and Pepsi for junk food tie-ins. Say what you want about the film, it was only a moderate success at the box office and holds an ugly 22 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes. But the sweet Taco Bell Congo themed wrist watches made you one of the coolest kids on the playground.
In 1996, McDonald’s payed $100 million in royalties to promote Disney films, a deal that was worth $1 billion to the Walt Disney Co. The most impressive aspect of the 90s Disney machine is that the most popular film properties of that era are still en vogue when it comes to merchandising. Few brands have the marketable longevity as Disney Classics and during the 90s, Disney was at the top of their game. From 1989-1999 the Mouse House released a slew of popular animated films, harkening back to their roots with musicals based on classic tales. The added threat of VHS allowed kids watch these movies on repeat, giving Disney the opportunity to milk the cash cow for years, and parents a mental breakdown every time they heard "Hakuna Matata." The Golden Arches didn't hog all the fun, Pizza Hut and Burger King featured several Disney tie-ins before Ronald and Mickey joined forces. The deal between McDonald’s and Disney ended in 2006, due to nutritional regulations in kids meals but believe it or not, Disney and McDonald’s rekindled their partnership in 2018 with a new deal, starting with the promotion of Incredibles 2.
In 1989, Warner Bros pulled out all the stops in promoting one of most hyped and anticipated films in history, Batman. No doubt, this film would be a cultural event so Warner Bros hired a young visionary in Tim Burton to blend the campy, fun Adam West style Batman with the gritty, gothic-noir elements of Frank Miller’s comics. They felt Michael Keaton was the perfect man to bring this version of Batman to the big screen, but Warner Bros made an even bigger splash by hiring the legendary Jack Nicholson to play the Joker, in one of the most lucrative acting contracts ever. After totaling a worldwide accumulation of over $400 million at the box office, Batman also generated around $500 million in licensing and merchandising, with partners like Diet Coke, Ralston Cereals and also Taco Bell, who featured plastic collectors cups with impressive artwork.
This is where things get ugly. After making real life Bruce Wayne money on the first Batman film, Warner Bros decided to up the ante with the sequel, Batman Returns. Featuring two new villains in Cat Woman and the Penguin, WB turned their focus in licensing towards kids, with a huge line of toys and action figures. McDonald’s, who probably saw an uptick of traffic to their competitor Taco Bell with the previous film decided to get in the game for the sequel, releasing their own line of collectors cups, this time with sweet frisbee lid action. The problem lies with the Happy Meal toys McDonald’s featured to promote the film. Turns out Tim Burton decided to up the ante himself with the sequel, diving deeper into the seedy underbelly of Gotham and its villains. Danny Devito’s Penguin is a vile, sadistic, fish eating pervert who wants to murder children while Michelle Pfeifer’s Catwoman is armed with a whip and dressed in tight black leather, practically a pair of handcuffs away from an R rating. Parents were pissed when the film was released, a huge outcry of parents wrote angry letters, feeling that Warner Bros and Mcdonalds mislead them with their lines of kid friendly merch. After Warner Bros and McDonalds took turns blaming each other for the fiasco, the eventual scapegoat was Tim Burton, who was unceremoniously fired before being able to finish out his trilogy. All of us lost in the long run, because what follows are two flaming turds of a Batman film.
Now with Tim Burton out of the way, the Batman franchise could be the shallow, corporate, marketing machine that Warner Bros wanted it to be all along. After hiring Joel Schumacher of all people to direct the film, everyone agreed to take Batman in a more kid friendly direction. In addition to casting a new Batman in Val Kilmer, Batman Forever brought Batman’s sidekick Robin to the big screen for the first time. Best of all, Jim Carrey who was the at the height of his star power in 1995, portrayed the Riddler, alongside Tommy Lee Jones as Two Face. McDonald’s was lured back into the fold and celebrated the film with my personal favorite fast food tie-in item ever, a line of glass collectors cups featuring characters from the film. In a popular McDonald’s ad, Alfred asks Batman, “Can I persuade you to take a sandwich with you sir?” To which Batman replies “I’ll get drive-thru” and speeds away in his Bat-mobile, in dark, brooding, greasy McShame. This line actually made it into the film, they weren’t even subtle at this point.
Watching Batman and Robin is sort of a right of passage for film nerds. The film is so heinously bad that it’s almost endearing, partially due to Mr. Freeze’s cheesy ice puns. Perhaps one of the worst big-budget tent pole films ever, the fourth installment in this franchise brought us another new Batman in George Clooney, Batwoman, Batnipples and the king of blockbuster action in Arnold Schwarzenegger. But even the Governator couldn’t fix this blunder. With a whopping 10 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes and a poor performance at the box office, Batman and Robin almost killed the franchise and the superhero genre along with it. Pop Tarts created a line of Bat-themed toasted treats and Taco Bell probably regrets coming back to promote the film, with yet another line of plastic cups, but this time with peel offs offering a chance at cash and prizes.
After Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day dominated the summer box office in 1996, it seemed giving the German director a crack at rebooting the Godzilla franchise was a good idea. It wasn’t. Taco Bell secured a deal to promote Godzilla in their restaurants and while the film performed moderately at the box office with a very poor critical consensus, the ad campaign and kids meal toys Taco Bell used to promote the film was a big hit. Collectively, the best fast food ad campaign in my humble opinion, with not only collectors cups but bad ass cup-holders to go along with. The kids meal took it to another level, I mean check out these toys! In addition to Taco Bell, Doritos and KFC also ran Godzilla promotions, perhaps laying the groundwork for a major movie tie-in partnership in their near future.
Michael Jordan is not only the best basketball player EVER (yeah, I said it Lebron lovers) but he’s quite possibly the most marketable human being to ever walk the Earth. MJ was a human billboard in the 90s, not only were his shoes and Nike clothing line selling like crazy, but Michael had countless endorsements with global brands, everybody wanted to be like Mike. Naturally, Hollywood finally stepped up to cash in on the craze and it was Warner Bros who had the perfect cinematic partnership, Looney Tunes. MJ had already partnered with Bugs, Daffy and other Looney Tunes in a popular series of Nike commercials, which were the inspiration to the film Space Jam, a movie that was seemingly destined to be a licensing juggernaut. The film went on to create an estimated $6 billion in revenue, through toys and other merchandise. Kraft Macaroni and Cheese offered a free Space Jam poster while McDonald’s, who had already teamed up with Michael Jordan a few times before, signed on for a tie-in deal creating a memorable line of Happy Meal toys and plush dolls.
Unless you lived under a rock in the mid-to-late 90s you knew about the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. As the popularity baton passed from the Ninja Turtles to the Power Rangers on the small screen, the obvious next step for the teens with attitude was a big screen adaptation. Unlike the TMNT movie however, Power Rangersthe Movie was pretty terrible. Somehow while sandwiched between Apollo 13, Pocahontas and Batman Forever—Power Rangers still managed to make $66 million at the box office. Of course the licensing rights to the film were probably worth more than a giant pile of Goldar poop, and McDonald’s knocked it out of the park with some of their best Happy Meal toys ever.
Wickey-wild-wickey-wickey what a piece of crap this film turned out to be. Barry Sonnenfeld thought he found a blockbuster formula with his 1997 hit Men In Black. Will Smith+sci-fi/comedy+catchy music video=tons of money at the box office. He forgot to factor a good script into the equation when signing on to direct the steampunk western, Wild Wild West. Everybody involved with this film absolutely hates it, nothing went as planned and even Will Smith’s 90s star power couldn’t save Wild Wild West from horrible critic reviews and a underwhelming box office. Burger King also expected a hit, signing on to a tie-in deal with their BK Big Kids menu featuring a line of toys. Let’s not forget BK also gave us these sweet James West sunglasses for your everyday gun fighting needs.
The return of Star Wars to the big screen in 1999 was the movie marketing event of a lifetime, the holy grail of tacky tie-ins and unabashed promotion. In the 16 years between The Return of the Jedi and the Phantom Menace, creator George Lucas did his best to keep Star Wars in the public consciousness with novels, toys, comics, video games and even special edition re-releases of the original films. So when fans heard about a a prequel trilogy being developed around the fall of Anakin Skywalker, the fanbase lost their collective minds. Hardcore fans even bought tickets to see the film Meet Joe Black just to get a glimpse at the trailer (early days of the internet so no trailer release on YouTube). Needless to say, companies were lining up to attach their brand to this giant cultural event, but one corporation dominated most of the licensing, PepsiCo. Beyond sodas, Pepsi also owned several snack food brands like Doritos, Cheetos and Lays and combined with PepsiCo’s newly formed fast food wing. Yum! Brands, which included Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut, Pepsi was in a position to completely saturate the market with Phantom Menace merchandising. In a $2 billion deal, Pepsi slapped the Phantom Menace on collector soda cans and junk food packaging, usually combined with some sort of contest. At the restaurants, a plethora of Star Wars items was offered from toys to collectors cups, not to mention contests of their own. You would think this aggressive marketing would result in ad-nauseam, but for most Star Wars fans it was a blast to immerse yourself in all the hype. To me, the memories of excitement and anticipation surrounding the Phantom Menace induces warm, fuzzy, nostalgic feelings, I even remember desperately wanting a Phantom Menace Pepsi vending machine. Of course, my happiness faded a little after seeing the film, but that’s for another article. In the end, Star Wars once again dominated the world of movie merchandising and the Phantom Menace went on to make over $1 billion at the box office, not too bad Jar Jar, not too bad indeed.
Not really a tie-in as much as the greatest product placement in history! It deserves a mention because the movie essentially becomes a commercial for the companies mentioned in this scene while simultaneously poking fun at Hollywood's relationship with corporate America.
Without a doubt my favorite franchise of all time is Back to the Future. While the first film is as close to perfection you can get in my eyes, one of the few flaws is the amount of product placement, a theme that continues throughout the franchise, particularly BTTF 2. It honestly doesn't bother me much because product placement was an interesting way to showcase popular brands in the future, such as Nike's Self-Lacing Shoes, Pepsi Perfect and Pizza Hut's Hydrating Pizza just to name a few. Since most of the corporate relationships to BTTF were through product placement, few tie-ins were done at the time—a notable exception is Pizza Hut who offered very 90s themed Solar Shades to tie-in with BTTF2. On October 21, 2015 however, several brands mentioned in the film celebrated the best single day tie-in event ever, as "Back to the Future Day" celebrated the arrival of Marty McFly, Jennifer Parker and Doc Brown in the future.
How do you celebrate a cataclysmic event that could wipe out all life on Earth? With America's favorite french fries of course! The day McDonald's and Michael Bay decided to team up should be chalked up as a low point of American culture. Or is it a perfect marriage? You be the judge.
Never has a tie-in ad so adequately displayed the artistic demise of a beloved franchise, or signaled to fans that a cinematic staple has completely sold out like this Pepsi advertisement for Alien 3. Not gonna lie though, every nostalgic bone in my body loves this ad and it's at the very least on par with Alien 3.
Damn right I loved NASCAR. As a kid growing up just outside of Charlotte NC, NASCAR was inescapable. In 1989 Tom Cruise arrived in my stomping grounds to star in the film Days of Thunder. Selfishly, I added this tie-in just because of the nostalgic feelings it conjures. The Paramount theme park just outside of Charlotte even had a Days of Thunder motion simulator ride which was the shit so naturally these mini race cars were an absolute must have for me as a kid. Of course a film featuring 200 mph billboards was a perfect product placement opportunity but Mello Yello even featured a tie-in ad. Yes, the movie sucks, but just remember, "rubbin' son is racin."
What is the best junk food tie-in of the 70s, 80s, and 90s?
Obviously I had to cut this list off somewhere, but I know there are plenty of nostalgic junk food tie-ins I didn't mention in this article. If you want to chime in on some of these classic movie promotions or yell at me for forgetting that special tie-in of your youth, you can find me on Twitter @viavhs. Don't forget to check out brand new episodes of the VIA VHS Podcast coming soon.
About the author
I've been a movie addict since the 80s and 90s.
My dealer was the local Blockbuster video and I injected these drugs through a Magnavox VCR and a Toshiba television. No need for an intervention. Host of the VIA VHS Retro Movie Podcast.