Yesterday at CES, James Cameron and Mercedes-Benz unveiled a new concept car called the Vision AVTR that combines movie tie-in marketing with brand purpose in a way that has seldom been more elaborate—or expensive. This is the marketing strategy behind every movie-related Happy Meal brought to its logical, borderline absurd, 21st-century conclusion: an entire luxury car crafted to “align philosophically” with a long-dormant blockbuster movie franchise.
Of course there’s no steering wheel.
The future of mobility is here! Mercedes-Benz is thrilled to announce a new partnership inspired by the @officialavatar sequels showcasing our collective drive for innovation, creativity and authenticity #VISIONAVTR pic.twitter.com/r0R2uEGiRM
— Mercedes-Benz (@MercedesBenz) January 7, 2020
In an interview with Roadshow, Cameron said, “We were looking for a corporate sponsor that would be aligned with us philosophically, and Mercedes was looking for a way to capture the attention of the public about their new sustainability push, their new philosophy, and their new vision for the next two decades.”
Last year, Mercedes-Benz announced that it would make its fleet carbon-neutral within two decades, using fully electric vehicles, as well as powering its manufacturing operations with renewable energy. The Vision AVTR concept is meant to give us a glimpse of a future “zero impact car,” according to the company. It features battery technology developed with graphene-based organic cell chemistry made without rare earths and metals, making it compostable and recyclable.
This is all very cool stuff. Actually, the least cool thing about it might just be the movie tie-in itself.
While 2009’s Avatar is famous for its box-office success, the film hardly sparked the kind of fan movement that we’ve now grown accustomed to with franchises like Star Wars and the MCU. That may change now that Disney owns 20th Century Fox, and although it’s been 10 years since the last trip to Pandora, the plan is for us to see four more Avatar films over the next decade. But even the timing for that is a bit strange. This CES rollout was Cameron’s way to tease concept art for the first sequel, which isn’t scheduled to hit theaters until December 2021. That’s some serious marketing lead time, designed to remind us that Avatar still actually exists.
Between the organic battery, ability to crab-walk, and whatever those “bionic flaps” on the back do, Mercedes could’ve collected just as much earned media and brand love for the same “zero impact car” without the help of Cameron’s blue people. Arguably, the lack of a movie tie-in could actually give the whole concept more gravitas. Instead what we have is a partnership between two massive brands that doesn’t entirely make sense, aside from the basic premise that two big things put together might make an even bigger thing. For Cameron, looking for a major brand to boost his film’s marketing reach and help his bottom line, it makes perfect sense. But what does Mercedes-Benz get out of it that it wouldn’t have already with such a cool car concept?
The road of automotive movie tie-ins is long and weird, and you’d think we’d all have learned our lesson by now. Do you remember Hyundai’s Iron Man Kona? (No, no you don’t.)
How about the Rogue One Nissan Rogue? If you’ve seen the end of this film, it doesn’t exactly scream car safety.
Let’s not forget the Transformers Bumblebee Camaro.
Movie tie-in cars are different from traditional product placement, having existing cars appear in a film. At worst, the tie-in reeks of a certain type of bloated, obvious advertising ploy. At best, it turns a serious purchase that costs thousands of dollars, and typically spells new debt for new customers, into a Happy Meal.