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The internet reacts to new Toys R Us Sora film: ‘Stephen King’s nightmares’

Following its 2017 bankruptcy declaration, the toy retailer is trying to revive its brand image through AI-generated video. But some X users are cringing at the effort.

On Monday, retail giant Toys R Us premiered a new brand film created entirely by Sora, a text-to-video AI model developed by OpenAI. Its reception online hasn’t been exactly glowing.

The one-minute video, which debuted at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity last week, reimagines the brand’s origin story: a young Charles Lazarus, founder of Toys R Us, falls asleep at his father’s bike shop and dreams of Geoffrey the Giraffe, the character who would ultimately become the brand’s mascot.

The video looks a bit like a live-action film seen through the eyes of someone who maybe went a little overboard on their daily LSD microdose. Like many modern AI-generated videos – even that which comes from a state-of-the-art model like Sora – the graphics in the brand film look almost like the real thing, but not quite. And some details are glaringly off: a bit of text on the front of the bike shop, for example, appears as scribbly gibberish.

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There’s an ethereal, almost liquid quality to some of the shots – especially those that depict Lazarus’ dream – as if they were filmed underwater. The effect is compounded by dreamy music that sounds like it was composed to put you to sleep before you’re wheeled into surgery. And it’s hard to know what we’re supposed to make of the giant, smiling giraffe, surrounded by floating toys, with a blurry galaxy cast behind him.

The project was executed by Toys R Us Studios – the brand’s in-house entertainment arm – in conjunction with marketing agency Native Foreign.

Toys R Us has been positioning the project as a bold and cutting-edge demonstration of AI-powered marketing. “Our brand embraces innovation and the emotional appeal of Toys R Us to connect with consumers in unexpected ways,” Kim Miller Olko, the brand’s chief marketing officer, said in a statement. “We aim to capture that nostalgic feeling and deliver it uniquely to Toys R Us kids of all ages.”

Many viewers on social media have walked away with a slightly different take, however.

“Toys R Us released an AI commercial and it fucking sucks,” Joe Russo, the director behind Avengers: Infinity War and The Grey Man, posted on X.

TOYS ‘R US released an AI commercial and it fucking sucks.

— Joe Russo (@joerussotweets) June 25, 2024

“Love this commercial is like, ‘Toys R Us started with the dream of a little boy who wanted to share his imagination with the world,’” comedian Mike Drucker wrote in another X post. “‘And to show how, we fired our artists and dried Lake Superior using a server farm to generate what that would look like in Stephen King’s nightmares.’”

OpenAI unveiled Sora in February. The model, which can generate lifelike video from text prompts, quickly made headlines and caused a ripple of both excitement and anxiety across creative industries, including marketing. It has not yet been released for public access. (Native Foreign chief creative officer Nik Kleverov, however, has access to Sora, according to Toys R Us.)

Some on Twitter were surprised to see any kind of marketing from Toys R Us, which declared bankruptcy in 2017, leaving more than 30,000 employees in the lurch. (“Commercial made by no one to advertise a company that doesn’t exist featuring childhood experiences that will never happen again,” one user wrote about the AI-generated film.) Four years later, however, the brand was acquired by WHP Global, a firm that specializes in managing and expanding retail companies. In 2022, Macy’s announced a partnership with the toy store chain, promising to open a Toys R Us in every Macy’s location across the US.

Native Foreign’s Kleverov believes that the new brand film reflects a broader, growing trend of AI adoption throughout the marketing landscape. “The creative industry is experiencing a renaissance, much like Toys R Us,“ he said in a statement. “Through Sora, we were able to tell this incredible story with remarkable speed and efficiency.” (He didn’t go into specifics about just how quickly the film was made.)

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Kleverov had posted about the video on X, writing that it had been “an honor“ to take part in the project. That post was deleted for unknown reasons sometime between Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. (At the time of publishing, Native Foreign has not responded to The Drum’s request for comment.)

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