‘Avatar’ toys with augmented reality

Partners plan to integrate tech for promotion

If you haven’t heard of augmented reality, you will soon, thanks to “Avatar.”

Hollywood and Madison Avenue have been quick to embrace the technology — which launches movable 3D images or games on computer screens when an item is held up to a webcam — as the newest must-have marketing tool to connect with consumers.

But while some studios have already introduced the technology, James Cameron’s sci-fi actioner will likely be the property that makes augmented reality a household phrase.

That’s because Fox, which is rolling out “Avatar” worldwide Dec. 18, has lined up McDonald’s and the Coca-Cola Co. as promotional partners, and Mattel as the pic’s official toymaker. All are integrating augmented reality in their products and through high-profile campaigns that tie in with the film.

The companies are each spending tens of millions to not only associate themselves with “Avatar” in unique ways, but also devote considerable time to educate consumers — from kids to adults — of what augmented reality can do. Of course, the partners will also help Fox promote “Avatar” in places around the world that the studio can’t buy its way into, like stores and restaurants.

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The partners need to launch an educational effort in order for parts of their campaigns to work.

“This takes you back to the days when people didn’t know how to text,” said Rita Drucker, senior VP of feature-film promotions at Fox. “There is a learning curve, but (the film’s partners) are trying to make it as easy as possible for the consumer to understand and interact with.”

McDonald’s will use augmented reality to promote its Big Mac to young adults and to entice kids to request more Happy Meals through “Pandora’s Quest,” a series of online games that are playable, and toys that light up and move, when using a webcam.

While it’s common for McDonald’s to use movies to promote Happy Meals, “Avatar” marks one of the first times the company has turned to a pic to target young adults.

Coca-Cola hopes the film can promote Coke Zero — aimed at 18- to 24-year-old males — and has plastered AVTR (the name of the pic’s military program) on 140 million cans and 8 million refrigerator packs in the U.S. alone. When held up to a webcam, a Samson helicopter takes off onscreen that can be controlled by moving the can.

And to give its toys a high-tech twist, Mattel has created a line of action figures, vehicles and alien creatures that come with an i-Tag, created by Total Immersion, that reveals special content when shown to a webcam.

Since “Avatar” is a new property, Fox needs to educate auds on the characters, creatures, vehicles and overall world that will be seen in the film. The partners will all do so through exclusive videos and animated content and background info that may not necessarily be seen onscreen when the pic unfolds.

Coke Zero’s AVTR.com, for example, will include details on the AVTR program and the Pandora planet plus bios of the film’s characters.

“Avatar’s” alien world and the film’s high-tech imagery fit with Coke Zero because the beverage’s tagline is “the impossible made possible.” The augmented reality offering is part of a larger overall campaign centered around the AVTR website that is all about “unlocking this world of ‘Avatar,’?” said Chip York, worldwide entertainment marketing director for the Coca-Cola Co.

Fox isn’t the first to introduce augmented reality to consumers.

Paramount has already integrated it on DVD packaging for “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” and “Star Trek,” while Universal built an augmented reality-accessible garden for the “Coraline” DVD.

But by inking deals with the world’s largest fast-food chain, soda company and toymaker, Fox is looking to ensure that the concept is introduced to a mass audience around the world in one big promo push for “Avatar.”

Consumers will then decide whether it’s here to stay.

“Avatar” will provide marketers with “a huge opportunity for us to learn how and how long consumers are interacting with it,” York said.”It’s definitely something that’s new,” he added. “It has huge potential in the future of distributing new entertainment content, brand massaging and advertising. But we need to learn from it first.”

In addition to McDonald’s and Coke, LG Mobile and Panasonic are also global promotional partners, with the cell-phone maker using “Avatar” to introduce its new eXpo handset, which can project video and photos, while Panasonic is using TV and online ads to create more of an overall branding effort for the company’s electronics products. In some markets overseas, Casio, Energizer and Schick are also pushing the pic.

None are utilizing augmented reality as part of their campaigns, however.

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