What Can We Learn from Famous Custom Packaging in Movies?
In movies, there’s often an object. This object is either something that everyone is chasing, stealing, or trying to protect. It’s the Holy Grail, Rosebud, and the Maltese Falcon. When an object is the center of the plot, it’s called a MacGuffin. There’s a lot of writing out there on MacGuffin’s, but not a lot about it’s packaging. When the all-important MacGuffin needs to be moved or protected, how is it packaged? How is it shipped?
Let’s take a look at the packaging of different MacGuffins in movies, and see what we can learn from them. I’ll take a moment to rate each one on three different categories and then suggest what could have made the packaging better.
Here’s a quick rundown of the grading rubric I used:
- Right-Sized: Does the packaging take up more space than it needs to? Do the contents of the package have a lot of empty room to bounce around and get damaged? A ten in this category means the packaging fits like a glove.
- User Experience: Is the package easy to deliver, handle, and open? Is it designed in a way to provide the least amount of frustration possible? A ten in this category means that the user of the package actually enjoys handling and opening it.
- Branding: Does the package look good? Does it convey a good message about the contents of the package? I give poor marks here for bland packaging that looks no different from any other cardboard box you might see.
- Overall: An average of the above three categories, although I reserve the right to tweak the final score as I see fit. Like all other categories, this one is measured on a scale of 1-10.
1. The Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark
Possibly the most famous MacGuffin of all time is the Ark in Indiana Jones’ first film. It’s an ancient artifact of immense power that the Nazis hoped to use to win an impending war. But how does it fare when it comes to its original purpose—serving as the packaging for the stone tablets the Ten Commandments were written on?
Well, not too great. Granted, it’s hard for any packaging to preserve something for 3,000+ years. However, when the Ark is finally opened towards the end of the film, it’s revealed that all that’s left inside is dust. The stone tablets had completely disintegrated.
My diagnosis? Oversized packaging with not enough padding. By having so much empty space in the Ark, the tablets were left to bounce around, eventually leading to them crumbling.
By the way, it also appears to melt the face off of anyone who opens it, which is a great feature for packaging security, not so great for user experience.
Right-Sized: 2. So much empty space very likely contributed to the loss of the stone tablets.
User Experience: 0. I mean, it’s melts your face off when you open it. That’s not great.
Branding: 9. Not many organizations are willing to brand their packages with gold statues. True care was put into the art and branding of the Ark.
Overall: 2. Doesn’t protect the package and provides a poor user experience? The Ark may be an invaluable artifact, but it’s not great package design.
2. The Tube in National Treasure
For most of the movie, Cage and company haul the Declaration of Independence from one famous Colonial American location to the next, with only a small tube as its only protection.
Putting aside the unlikelihood of this film’s setup, the packaging fares extraordinarily well. It survives car chases, on-foot chases, temple crawls, and at one point, getting thrown into the middle of a busy Philadelphia street.
At the end of the movie, the Declaration of Independence—a document so old that it should be crumbling to dust—is delivered back to the federal government unharmed. Surely this must be a plot hole, a viewer may say. No document could survive such a manhandling.
I partially agree with this assessment, but I would also argue that well-designed packaging plays a large roll in the Declaration’s survival. You see, it’s protected by two poster tubes, one inside of the other, with both tubes custom-fitting the Declaration. Empty space can cause quite a bit of packaging damage if you have a rough journey, and the lack of it in this movie certainly helped prevent the Declaration of Independence from becoming like the tablets in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Right-Sized: 10. Perfectly fitting to prevent damages.
User-Experience: 7. Unscrewing two lids is a minor inconvenience, but it’s still a pretty easy to open, easy to move package design.
Branding: 4. Next to none. I would only dock this score more if the package was delivered via a cardboard tube wrapped in plastic wrap.
Overall: 7. The branding really hurt this one.
3. Frodo’s Ring Necklace in Lord of the Rings
If you’re probably thinking that this barely qualifies as packaging…you would be right. Which is why I’m going to give it a low score. Look, taking The One Ring to Mordor is the most important delivery in the history of Middle Earth, and Frodo decides to carry it on a necklace? What kind of boneheaded decision is that? Why not carry it in a lockbox, or at least something that’s not usually in plain sight?
Carrying the ring on a flimsy chain guarantees that Frodo will spend nine hours (12 if you watch the extended editions) almost constantly grabbing his neck to make sure the one ring is still there.
The lack of protection also means that the ring will be a constant temptation to almost everyone around him. On no less than four occasions, one of Frodo’s friends will spot the ring dangling around his neck, and will immediately think about how easy it would be to steal it from him.
Lord of the Rings is a great film series, but great packaging this is not.
Right-Sized: 7. I mean, yeah it doesn’t take up any more space than it needs to, but at what cost?
User-experience: 2. Granted, carrying the ring isn’t going to be a great experience to begin with, but constantly worrying about losing the ring or having it stolen makes this one of the least safe packaging designs ever.
Branding: 4: Sure, you get to see the product a lot when you package it in plain sight, but that’s actually a detriment when the branding is for the Dark Lord Sauron.
Overall: 3. I will almost never say this…but this could have used a little more packaging.
4. R2-D2 in Star Wars: A New Hope
Like Frodo’s ring necklace above, my last choice for a movie packaging analysis is a bit unconventional. The MacGuffin of Star Wars is the Death Star plans. Today, we would normally just email some files like that, but given that Star Wars takes place a long time ago, the Rebels have to rely on R2-D2 to personally deliver the plans.
Even though the physical delivery of electronic files is now archaic, the way it’s delivered is not. In a lot of ways, R2 represents the future of shipping. Amazon recently made headlines with their drone delivery plans, and you could consider R2 a precursor to that. Robots like R2 can make great shippers since they aren’t subject to temperature the same way we are, and won’t give up until the package is delivered.
That said, there are some cons. R2-D2 is a bit on the large size—a much smaller robot could have accomplished the same purpose. Also, R2 is not well designed for rough terrain…like stairs.
Right-Sized: 4. R2 is a multipurpose droid—but as a delivery drone, he’s a lot larger than he needs to be.
User-Experience: 9. Guarantees in-person delivery, friendly service, and might even help with some household chores before leaving.
Branding: 10. You can buy R2-D2 action figures, lego sets, and plush dolls. Nothing else on this list comes close to this level of brand recognition.
Overall: 8. Who wouldn’t want a loyal robot in charge of their deliveries?
Maybe I have a soft spot for future technologies and Star Wars. One way the future of packaging has arrived today is through On Demand Packaging®. By using smart, box-making machines, Packsize can create a perfectly sized box that gives your customers the best possible user experience while minimizing damage. We also offer custom printing on your boxes, allowing you to brand your packages and stand out above all the other boring boxes out there.
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