The first trailer of the Minions 3D animated movie was released yesterday and has already chalked up over 5 million views in 24 hours. Meanwhile, the Minions movie Facebook page has close to 26 million ‘Likes’. Are these signs of impending minion madness even before the movie hits the big screen in July 2015? Victoria Ong’s report on the Minions mayhem that swept Malaysia in July 2013 sheds some light on this cultural phenomenon.
If you recognise the gibberish above, chances are you’re familiar with the cheerful yellow Minions from hit Hollywood 3D animated movie, Despicable Me 2. You may even be a fan of those jellybean-shaped beings that chatter in comical voices and sing about bananas and potatoes.
If so, would your fandom propel you to tear through the closed roller shutters of a McDonald’s outlet — just to get your hands on a three-inch plastic toy Minion? Or force up the outlet’s roller shutters halfway, creep underneath it, and make a beeline for the loot?
Alright, maybe not.
It may come as a shock then, that these two scenarios aren’t hypothetical. They are exactly what large crowds of crazed fans in Malaysia did at McDonald’s outlets in Prangin Mall, Penang and Centre Point Mall, Sabah. Before opening hours, hundreds of impatient Minion fans were already queueing up outside the outlets. They eventually grew tired of waiting, and decided to barge through the roller-shutters to be first in line at the counter.
Welcome to the world of Minion madness in Malaysia.
Across the nation in July 2013, fans hungry for Minions thronged McDonald’s outlets. Queues went on for hours each Thursday as crowds anticipated the release of a new Minion toy at midnight. Lines of hundreds snaking around the outlets were a common sight.
At this juncture, I should probably put my hand up and disclose that I am a fan of the Minions. Cute and clumsy, with silly antics and infectious laughter — these little guys grow on you. Yet I was shocked by the videos of the incidents at Prangin Mall and Centre Point Mall. Destruction of commercial property to obtain a plastic toy comes across to me as rather… despicable behaviour.
So what possessed thousands of human beings to behave strangely like Minions, which had an obvious case of herd mentality in the movie?
Clever marketing kickstarted the snowball effect towards Minion madness. One noteworthy marketing tactic by movie distributor Universal Pictures and producers Illumination Entertainment was the release of a series of three Despicable Me 2 movie trailers featuring the Minions. The first teaser-trailer was released in March 2012, 16 months well ahead of the movie premiere on 3 July, 2013. These videos featuring the delightful Minions went viral in an age of social media, particularly so in a Facebook-saturated country like Malaysia. Facebook ranks Malaysia fifth on the list of Asian countries with the most Facebook users. The well-timed release of different trailers on the internet over the course of 16 months built up public anticipation among Malaysians for the hilarious Minions’ return to the big screen.
The strategic pre-movie marketing paid off. Despicable Me 2 was a box office hit in many countries, and set the record for the most successful opening weekend for an animated film in Malaysia. The soil was ripe for the movie’s partnership with McDonald’s to blossom. For the month of July, nine different McDonald’s Happy Meal Minion collectibles were made available in Malaysia, with around two released each week. It was a brilliant tie-in with the fast food giant and marketing powerhouse to promote the movie. The demand for Happy Meal Minions was so high that outlets frequently ran out of stock within hours of release.
The out-of-stock situations were ironic, considering the abundance of Minions in the movie. Logically, this supply shortage could have been avoided. Considering that manufacturing costs for the three-inch plastic toys would be minimal, producing larger quantities to meet the anticipated demand was possible.
The “supply shortage” however, points to the social psychology principle of scarcity at work. The Scarcity Principle is based on the notion that people place a higher value on items of limited availability, and the desire to own a scarce item intensifies when there is competition for it. As Robert Cialdini writes in his New York Times bestseller on marketing persuasion, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (2006), “Perceived scarcity will generate demand. The joy is not in experiencing a scarce commodity but in possessing it.” Essentially, the same frenzy would have been unlikely if Happy Meal Minions were readily available in large quantities. This is telling when we consider that Minion toys at popular toy stores like Toys ‘R’ Us did not sell out, compared to Happy Meal Minions which were “limited”.
The recent Minion madness in Malaysia is but one extreme example of the many Happy Meal collectible crazes through the decades. Happy Meal toys that have incited similar queues in Malaysia (though to a less dramatic extent) include Hello Kitty (2000) and 101 Dalmatians (1997) — with literally 101 Dalmatians to collect. The history of the Happy Meal dates back to 1979 when McDonald’s rolled out the first Happy Meal in the United States, and had its first movie promotional tie-in with Star Trek: The Motion Picture in December of the same year.
Different motivations propelled the Malaysian public’s obsession with Happy Meal Minions. The long queues were typically dominated by college students, 20-something adults and parents. From my observations, I identified three main categories of Minion buyers: True Fans, who bought it for their own collection; Sacrificial Queuers, who bought it for their loved ones; and Trend Opportunists, who bought it to make a quick buck.
True Fan Ellie Chua, 26, told me: “One Thursday night, I went to four different McDonald’s outlets with some friends. We were looking for the least crowded outlet, which was a challenge since the lines were insane. I persevered in the queue at the last outlet and got my own cute Minion for keeps!”
Twenty-seven-year-old Lynn Foo thinks Minions are adorable, but joined the queues for a different reason. She was one of the many Sacrificial Queuers, who stood in line to get a Minion for a loved one. Lynn says, “I suppose I was like the parents who were queueing. But instead of buying the hard-to-get Minion toy for a child, it was for a close friend who is a big fan of the Minions.”
Why not just get a Toys “R” Us Minion then? Lynn responds: “Well, there’s a McDonald’s outlet near my home and the Minions at Toys “R” Us were much more expensive than a Happy Meal. I figured the effort of queueing up to get the elusive Happy Meal Minions would mean as much, if not more, to my friend.”
Trend Opportunists were aplenty in the online space, braving the queues to cash in on the Minion madness. In July 2013, a brief search of eBay found nearly 800 eBay sellers auctioning off the plastic toys to desperate buyers. A further check on popular Malaysian online trading website, mudah.my, showed listings of a set of three Happy Meal Minions for MYR1000 (AUD$330), a handsome profit, considering that the price of one Happy Meal is below MYR10 (AUD$3.30). With different stories of high resale value over the weeks, mass media played a role in populating the number of Trend Opportunists. The spike in the number of people buying extra Minions for resale led McDonald’s to limit each customer to four Minions per transaction.
After getting their prized Minion in the iconic box with the M-shaped handle, did most Malaysians actually consume the accompanying Happy Meal? Unfortunately not. People were photographed disposing of their Happy Meals after getting their hands on the toys. The large quantities of wasted food was shocking.
Thankfully, every cloud has a silver lining (yes, even a giant cloud of Minion-mad Malaysians). A group of young advertising agency colleagues in capital city Kuala Lumpur decided to take action to address the problem. While discussing the craze and the amount of wasted Happy Meals, the group at Creative Juice was struck by a sense of guilt. Creative director VJ Anand explains, “That was when we came up with the idea to donate the unwanted meals to those in need of food.”
The group of 12 started a campaign called “The Happiest Meal”, and created a Facebook page of the same name to raise awareness. They began the first collection drive on a Thursday at three different McDonald’s outlets around Kuala Lumpur and collected 170 Happy Meals. They donated the meals to a soup kitchen and an orphanage, and also handed them out to the homeless and hungry around Petaling Street and Masjid India. Their initiative sparked off similar movements in other states, including Johor and Penang.
As I catch a glance of smiley googled-eyed “Dave Gadget Grabber” on my bookshelf (a gift from a friend who knew of my soft spot for Minions), I suspect that Minion madness will make a return.
After all, Minions, the spin-off prequel to Despicable Me 2, is set for release in July 2015. It would come as no surprise if Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment were looking towards another partnership with McDonald’s for a series of Minions Happy Meal collectibles.
Did Malaysia wake up from the month-long Minion madness? Will Malaysians reflect on the various despicable episodes and decide to refrain from future hysteria? Or will Minion madness only get worse with a full movie dedicated to the little guys?
Let’s hope for more silver linings if the Minion cloud returns in July 2015.