Avatar 3-D – A Lesson In Total Brand Transference



Sure, the effects in Avatar 3-D are mind-blowing. You feel immersed in the action. Near the end, during the epic battle, I found myself holding my breath. The guy next to me had moved completely to the edge of his seat and was propping his weight on his knees while his head hovered directly over the person in front of him. When the credits rolled we all cheered.

Avatar Poster with Coke Classic Can

Is it still "The Real Thing"? Movie goers say yes!

However, on hindsight, it was not the action, the story, or even the effects themselves that were the most impressive elements of the film. It was branding of the human characters.

For the movie to succeed, there is a central conceit that had to work seamlessly. The audience would need to transfer their sympathies and emotional attachments to the human characters to their Avatars. To complicate matters, they would then need to transfer them back again.

When you think about it, the entire time the human character is working through his Avatar he or she is not in any real danger. The Avatar could be shot, tortured or even burned to death and the human would be unharmed. Perhaps a bit shaken, but they would suffer no physical damage.

This presents a problem. If we are cognisant of the humans always being safe, there is no drama, and the movie falls apart. So how did Cameron handle this dilemma? By creating brands.

Each character in the film is an archetype. They are not complicated creatures. The minute they walk on the screen and open their mouths you know exactly who they are, what they stand for, and ultimately where they will be at the end of the movie. Was there any doubt, in any one’s mind, that Jake Sully was a simple tough guy soldier with a heart of gold? Was anyone surprised that he ultimately won the acceptance of the Na’vi, go the chick, and help them lead the fight against the humans? I hope not. And that’s a good thing.

Critics often chastise directors for creating caricatures instead of real people. They complain that they use clichés, common stereotypes and visual shorthand to establish their characters and explain their motivations. Critics may call this lazy, but I call it smart branding.

A director generally has 90 minutes to tell a story. That’s not a lot of time. Sure, it would be nice if all movie charters were fully realized human beings but in high concept films this is not possible. It works great in character studies like the recent and brilliant “Up in The Air” with George Clooney. That story is very simple because the real story is the emotional and moral development of the main characters. The story line is intentionally pared down to create breathing room for the characters to grown and evolve. It really doesn’t matter if George Clooney is still working at his job at the end of the movie or if  he retires. It’s the characters inner journey we’re there for. The journey is more important than the conclusion. Concepts like the battle of good and evil don’t matter in a film like this.

However this approach could not work in Avatar. In the film “Up in the Air” the story is subservient to the needs of the characters. In high concept films like Avatar, the characters are subservient to the needs of the story. In Avatar it really does matter who wins and loses. It does matter that the mountains are floating and the final battle takes place at the Tree of Voices. How they communicate with nature matters. It’s a story of big ideas and the characters are there to facilitate them.

In Avatar everything is a brand. You instantly know what every element in the movie is, why it’s there, what its differentiator is, and what its value position is. There is no ambiguity. They practically have tag lines; Na’vi “One with Nature”, RDA Corporation “Greed is Good”,  Colonel Miles Quaritch “Macho Bad Ass” and Neytiri “Hot Alien Pussy”.

Would you still reach for the blue Coke? If James Cameron had any say, you probably would.

When a human character enters their chamber to connect their mind to their avatar, an amazing thing happens. It’s done so beautifully and so effectively you don’t even know it. To the audience, the avatar becomes the character. It’s not a puppet being controlled by the human, it is the human. This is a crucial difference. For if the audience viewed the avatars as a symbol of the human it wouldn’t work. You would feel no sense of danger or immediacy. It would be about as dramatic as a car chase scene where the cars are empty and the drivers are sitting at home, on their couch, and driving them by remote control. Ho-hum. Without some skin in the game it’s just a bunch of metal objects crashing around. And without believing that the avatar is really the human, then it’s just a hunk of meat.

This achievement is total brand transference. When the humans inhabit the avatar you treat the avatar as you would the human. When they go back to their original body you do the same. You instantly transfer your brand loyalty to whatever body that brand inhabits. This is done so well that when Jake’s avatar is literally unconscious and Jake is frantically trying to get back to his avatar, you don’t have a split loyalty. You understand exactly what is happening. Without Jake, the avatar is a piece of meat. It would be unfortunate, and perhaps a bit sad if it got destroyed, but you know Jake would be fine. However once he connects, you treat the avatar as if it was Jake. If the avatar is in danger, then Jake is in danger. If the avatar is hurt, then Jake is hurt. If the avatar dies, then so goes Jake.

Of course, none of this is literally true. The avatar is just a puppet. Jake is always safe. But your emotions tell you otherwise.

The blue Coke avatar looks positively normal when the entire product category experiences a color shift.

Now how was this achieved? My guess is the face, the voice and the kinetics are the key. Jake’s avatar looks like him, talks like him and moves like him. He’s a Coke can in a different color. All the key brand attributes are there, he’s just blue. Cameron just needed to get the audience to resolve the blue issue in their head. For this I think the Na’vi and their culture are the key. If Jake’s avatar was the only blue 10 foot tall creature in the movie it would be much harder to make that leap. However he is instantly surrounded by other tall blue creatures when he completes the transference. This normalizes the blueness and the tallness. It no longer stands out. Once we resolve the blue and tall issue, we have no longer have any problem identifying Jake’s avatar as an embodiment of himself.

So in Avatar, Cameron has achieved the Holy Grail of branding. A world where the brands are so well-defined that they can be repackaged and sold back to us and we joyfully buy it up. It would be as if Coke suddenly changed its packaging to blue and it didn’t matter. We still reached for it, bought it and eagerly drank it without a second thought to the change.

That’s pretty amazing.

File Under: Branding Theory – Branding and Movies – Brand Transference

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