Case study: McDonald’s Avatar

McDonald’s made its most ambitious movie-tie in with the film Avatar, breaking new ground with virtual reality marketing. During the campaign, young people could log on to the McDonald’s Avatar site and use their webcams to interact with a variety of augmented reality games.1 The goal of the Avatar campaign was simple: to “promote its Big Mac to young adults and to entice kids to request more Happy Meals.”2 Buying Big Macs gave consumers a way to reach higher levels of game play, and codes placed inside Happy Meals gave children access to special features on the website.” The strategy worked: McDonald’s saw an 18 percent increase in U.S. Big Mac sales as a result of its Avatar campaign.3

McDonald’s neuromarketing work. [Source: Neurosense. Our clients. (viewed 18, Oct. 2011).]

An example of an image, captured on McDonald’s PandoraQuest online game, that players could email to their friends. [Source: Multiverse, “Image Gallery,” (viewed 11 Aug. 2011).]

A banner ad for McDonald’s Avatar campaign. [Source: McDonald’s, “Avatar at McDonald’s: Experience the Thrill!” (viewed 11 Aug. 2011).]

McDonald’s PandorROVR, a remote exploration vehicle that users could control online, enabled site visitors to explore the Pandora landscape, capturing and sharing images along the way. [Source: Dean Takahashi, “Multiverse’s Remix Makes it Easy to Create Avatar Spinoff Games,” GamesBeat, 17 Dec. 2009, (viewed 11 Aug. 2011).

Using 3D photo-morphing technology, the “Avatarize Yourself” feature allowed viewers to upload a head shot—or select one from Facebook—in order to transform it into a rendition of a personalized Na’vi (the inhabitants of Pandora). Social networks were soon flooded with images of Avatarized users and celebrities. [Source: Patricia Odell, “McDonald’s Avatarize Yourself: 2010 IMA Winner,” Promo Magazine, 30 Apr. 2010, (viewed 11 Aug. 2011).]

Working closely with Avatar’s production team, McDonald’s developed an immersive online experience built around Pandora, the mythical planet of Avatar, with exclusive features for McDonald’s customers. [Source: “McDonald’s Orders Up Augmented Reality From Total Immersion for Avatar Promotion,” Computer Graphics World, 29 Dec. 2009, (viewed 4 Aug. 2010).]

McDonald’s advertising feedback loop: Media exposure (via cinema, television, and Internet) generates consumer awareness of the Avatar campaign, leading to restaurant visits and purchases, with specially marked packages that include URLs of online activities (including augmented reality environments and hidden object games). [Source: Promotion Marketing Association, “2010 REGGIE Awards: McDonald’s Avatar Program,”{AE11AD0B-7EF2-4E38-8663-C2648A6A4F8E}.jpg&entry_id=312&competition_id=1 (viewed 11 Aug. 2011).]

“Thrill Cards” placed on the side of Big Mac packages. Any of eight different Thrill Cards triggered a web cam powered by the McD Vision software to transport a consumer to three immersive Pandora environments. [Source: Cosmin Ghiurau, “McDonalds and Avatar Augmented Reality by Total Immersion,” 20 Dec. 2009, AugmentPro, (viewed 11 Aug. 2011).]

“Augmented reality feels like magic. Unlike a videogame, where the action is locked inside the machine, augmented reality enables the 3D world to enter into your world.”
– statement from McDonald’s campaign announcement 4


Creating immersive environments

McDonald’s cross-promotion campaign with the blockbuster movie Avatar is considered the “most extensive deployment” of augmented reality ever used in a marketing effort.5 Through its partnership with the Avatar production team, McDonald’s created an immersive online environment to allow its customers exclusive access to a life-like version of Pandora, the movie’s mythical planet. Among the campaign’s package of virtual 3-D experiences, a virtual reality “remote exploration vehicle” allowed users to drive through the planet’s exotic terrain as if they were characters in the film. Participants played an average of 10 minutes, making it McDonald’s most effective digital engagement experience.6

Infiltrating social networks

An immediate viral hit, the application “Avatarize Yourself” allowed McDonald’s to flood social networks worldwide with its brand. Users could send pictures of themselves transformed into Na’vis (the inhabitants of Pandora) to their social networks, including Facebook and MySpace. Available in seven languages, the app drew users from 198 countries — 7.8 million users worldwide — in just two months. McDonald’s also enticed consumers through a Twitter contest, in which winners could receive free Big Macs, movie tickets, and even a private screening of Avatar with the film’s producer.7

Location-based and mobile marketing

Both during its Avatar campaign and in general, McDonald’s has been at the forefront of using mobile marketing technologies. In 2010, for example, the company launched a mobile campaign to push sales of its breakfast Dollar Menu. Consumers could click on rich media banner ads located within an iPhone app, enter their zip code, and find out the location for the closest McDonald’s offering the promotion.8 McDonald’s has also used text messaging to deliver product coupons.9

Collecting personal data

Prior to the start of its Avatar campaign, McDonald’s was able to collect millions of consumer emails by requiring registration for its online Monopoly game.10 And like other food and beverage companies, McDonald’s enjoys easy access to young people’s personal information through its connections to Facebook and other social networking platforms.

Studying and triggering the subconscious

McDonald’s has been using leading neuroscience firms such as Neurosense to enhance its marketing.11 The neuroscience applications Neurosense offers include the ability to interpret subconscious reactions that consumers cannot or will not articulate, to read brain responses to factors that consumers are not consciously aware of, and to pinpoint images, designs, tastes, etc. that evoke positive or negative conscious or subconscious responses.12 McDonald’s also uses the ad agency DDB, which employs a variety of tools to probe consumer emotions and has noted the importance of neuromarketing.13


1.  McDonald’s Brings Customers to Another Planet in Partnership with James Cameron’s Movie Masterpiece ‘Avatar’. (2009, December 10). Retrieved August 3, 2010 from

2. Graser, M. (2009, November 19). ‘Avatar’ Toys with Augmented Reality. Variety. Retrieved August 3, 2010 from

3. Promotion Marketing Association. 2010 REGGIE Awards: McDonald’s Avatar Program. Retrieved August 5, 2010 from

4. Total Immersion. Behind the Augmented Reality Magic: McDonald’s, Avatar & Total Immersion. Retrieved October 13, 2011 from

5. Serious Games Market. (2009, December 17). McDonald’s Orders Up Augmented Reality from Total Immersion, in Global Promotion For Fox’s ‘Avatar’. Retrieved April 10, 2010 from

6. Promotion Marketing Association. 2010 REGGIE Awards: McDonald’s Avatar Program. Retrieved August 5, 2010 from

7. PR Newswire. (2009, December 7). McDonald’s Big Mac Joins Fox’s ‘AVATAR’ to Thrill Fans Nationwide. Retrieved August 4, 2010 from

8. Tsirulnik, G. (2010, April 12). McDonald’s pushes breakfast Dollar Menu with mobile campaign. Mobile Marketer. Retrieved October 11, 2011 from

9. Tetherball. McDonald’s Snack Wrap Mac Campaign, n.d. Retrieved August 4, 2010 from

10. Promo Magazine. (2010, May 1). 2009 Monopoly at McDonald’s: 2010 IMA Award Winner. Retrieved October 12, 2011 from

11. Neurosense. Our clients.

12. Neurosense. Applications.

13. DDB Worldwide Communications Group. (2011, May). Behavior Planning vs Channel Planning: Our approach to planning in a world of change. Retrieved October 13, 2011 from