Barbara Lippert’s Critique: Monopoly’s Brand Grab

‘m obsessed with the New Balance running shoe, the sneaker that’s one of the little silver tokens in the just-released “Here & Now” version of Monopoly that updates the entire game. There’s also a Starbucks mug, a Toyota Prius and even a new dog in town, a Labradoodle. (He’s not branded, but obviously illustrates the designer dog days of our lives.)

Maybe I’m so taken with the shoe because as a kid I always ended up with the boot, which looked like something a starving newsboy back in 1913 would have worn with holes in the toes. There’s no doubt that this Monopoly makeover is dead-on psycho-culturally: We’ve gone from a Depression-era sensibility of suffering to flat-out entitlement.

Also included among the new game pieces are a Moto-Razr cell phone, a laptop and a pack of McDonald’s French fries (the brands, by the way, are represented free of charge). What makes these updated tokens so fascinating is that they’re cast in metal. No matter how current the objects are, they still look like buried anthropological artifacts—which, ironically, could well last longer than some of the trendier products themselves. In no time, I guess, little kids will view the branded amenities the same way I saw irons and hardscrabble boots.

Still, there’s been an outcry from some players and parents that the introduction of brand names is a blatant commercialization that turns Monopoly into one big ad. Well, duh. If we as a nation are undivided about anything, it’s the idea of making money—and showing it. The game was never a religion. The brothers Parker allegedly rejected it several times because they didn’t think it could make a profit. If the game represents something sacrosanct, it’s more like the Holy Grail of Getting Rich Quick.

Indeed, Monopoly was and is all about money as the metaphor for the American dream, which principally is about owning a home and using real estate as the basis of a secure family life. And at its heart, the game is an ad for capitalism at its most democratic: Everyone starts with the same thing and then has the same opportunity to build through smarts, luck, hard work or, um, cheating. (I have a hard time remembering whether my siblings and I ever finished a game before someone resorted to stealing from the bank.)

Not surprisingly, the most extreme update is in the denominations of the money. Now Monopoly money truly seems like, well, monopoly money. Getting $200 for “passing go” used to feel like a gold mine, but now players collect $2 million. The white $1 bills are now $10,000. Does this mean kids will have to play with calculators?

Every part of the update is in tune with the times, especially the way the properties on the board were changed. If there is one thing America is rabid about these days, it’s voting—for the singers on American Idol and the wannabe celebs on about a gazillion other reality shows. “America has voted!” is printed on the board, and indeed, consumers were urged to go online to vote for the cities and landmarks of their choice. Some 3 million Mono-patriots did. Not surprisingly, a couple of politicians also got into the act: Worried that his fair city would end up in some low-rent area, for instance, the mayor of Phoenix lobbied all Arizonans to go online and vote. The result: Pheonix went from purple to red, a more expensive property.

In keeping with the America votes theme, the music in the TV spot, which starts running this week, is provided by American Idol runner-up Bo Bice. He covers the Chambers Bros.’ “Time Has Come Today,” which has a pulsing beat that allows the graphics to match neatly. The tune’s lyrics are a literal match for answering the question “What would the Monopoly game be like if it were invented today?” (The song, though, is stripped of meaning as we never hear the line, “And my soul’s been psychedelicized.”)

The TV spot, in all its Vegas-like bright lights and busyness, captures the look of the somewhat garish board. I’m more of a fan of the print, which is actually incorporated—in stop motion and then framed—in the commercial. Where the TV spot gets overcrowded, gaudy and heavy-handed, the print is pristine, simple and beautiful: It shows just the individual property on the board and its price. For instance, a yellow square has Los Angeles printed above the famous Hollywood sign. The price is listed: $2,600,000. With a hotel on it, the rent is $11,500,000. So who cares if it’s a New Balance running shoe or a hardscrabble boot? You’ll do all you can not to land on it. Short of cheating, of course.