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Augmented reality, or AR, is a hologram-like technology that allows consumers to interact with 3-D images displayed on any monitor. (Think Princess Leia in the first "Star Wars" -- "Help us Obi-Wan, you're our only hope" -- you you'll get the idea.) In recent months a host of brands ranging from Lego toys to Topps trading cards to Toyota have experimented with AR. Now McDonald's and Coke Zero are joining the fold through a pair of marketing partnerships with Fox in support of the James Cameron-directed movie.
Fans and skeptics
Augmented reality has garnered more than its share of enthusiasm from early adopters and tech geeks, but its marketing value is yet to be determined. Is it a passing fad or truly useful in creating richer digital-marketing experiences? The jury is still out. A majority of consumers still don't have webcams, which are needed to play with AR on the PC. And many feel PC-based AR is less compelling than the mobile AR-based utilities that have started to unfold, but consumers need smartphones for that, and smartphone penetration in the marketplace is still small but growing steadily.
"Augmented reality has become a unique way for consumers to interact with an IP, and for us it's a way to extend the experience with the movie," said Rita Drucker, senior VP-film promotions at Fox. "Given that consumers are interacting with the interactive space in a much more aggressive way, we're looking at unique ways to engage that digitally."
Because much of "Avatar" is seen through the eyes of Jake Sully, a paraplegic war veteran who undergoes an AR-inspired program, called Avatar, the movie's marketing partnerships will expand that storyline.
Coke Zero's expansive program includes a commercial, airing on TV and in cinema, as well as a significant digital presence with AVTR.com. While the site was created in collaboration with Twentieth Century Fox and Lightstorm Entertainment, Coke Zero is running and producing the site, with minimal branding, where consumers can go to utilize AR-enabled packaging created by Coke Zero. There are 140 million cans and more than 30 million fridge packs, as well as bags, bottles, popcorn bags and fountain drink cups flooding the market, beginning this month. All are emblazoned with Coke Zero logos and utilize AR. Worldwide, Coca-Cola ads will be found in 86% of cinemas.
"We wanted to step outside our comfort zone. In putting together the movie marketing program, we looked at a number of different technology elements," said Chip York, director-worldwide entertainment marketing director, noting the program is rolling out in more than 30 countries. "Augmented reality is something a lot of companies are playing around with right now, and we haven't."
A first for many
Mr. York also said the technology should resonate with and create buzz among Coke Zero's target customer, 18- to 24-year-old males. But the brand is focused on keeping it simple, as it will likely be the first time many consumers are using the technology. Once consumers have downloaded an application from AVTR.com, they can simply hold up the can or bag to a webcam to get a virtual ride in a Samson Helicopter from the movie that Sully flies in. In some countries, primarily Asia, lobby displays in theaters will allow consumers to explore AR in theaters. A Coke Zero TV spot for the movie also demonstrates how the technology works.
McDonald's will be employing a similar approach with its campaign, which will kick off during the movie's Dec. 18 opening weekend. The global partnership will span everything from a special Happy Meal that will take kids to an "Avatar"-branded site that will be part of the fast feeder's McWorld virtual world to a young-adult-oriented Big Mac tie-in that will redirect consumers to McDonalds.com/Avatar. McDonald's will support the promotion with two general-market TV spots as well ads for the Hispanic and Asian-American markets, general-market and African-American print and radio ads.
All the marketing muscle behind a still-nascent trend among gamers and other web-savvy consumers seems like it will do more to enhance AR's profile than the movie it's marketing. As Razorfish's Garrick Shmidt recently wrote in an Ad Age DigitalNext post, "After the 'gee whiz' factor is exhausted, there's not really much there to sustain any real engagement. Besides, there's a vague whiff of 'Dungeons & Dragons' around this stuff that will be hard for most to get over."
Coke Zero's Mr. York added, "We're all going to experiment now, but [eventually] we're going to want to see some results. ... There's a rich opportunity to customize content, promotions and marketing. And by customizing messages and providing different messages, we'll be able to tie it into actual business results."
"Avatar" also marks a continued investment on Coke's part in movie marketing. While the Coca-Cola Co. claims music and sports as its primary areas of cultural focus, Coke Zero's focus is entertainment, film and gaming, Mr. York said. 2008's James Bond flick "Quantum of Solace," which Coke Zero marketed in more than 50 countries last year, was the company's first global movie sponsorship in almost 10 years.
Other domestic "Avatar" marketing partners include Panasonic, the film's technology partner LG, which will launch an "Avatar"-themed campaign for its new Projector Phone Dec. 11, and Mattel, which rolled out an "Avatar" line of action figures earlier this year.