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Burger King wants you to burn that McDonald’s advertisement—and they’ll give you free food if you do it.

But we’re not talking real arson. The fast food giant recently ran a campaign in Brazil allowing customers who saw a McDonald’s ad in the wild to “burn” it digitally. When the user opened the Burger King app and followed prompts to point their camera at the ad, augmented reality (AR) technology made the advertisement go up in flames, revealing a coupon code for a free Whopper.  

While augmented reality has long been of interest to all kinds of people and for all kinds of uses, the cost of the tech has been prohibitive. But as the price to execute AR drops—from $300,000 to as low as $5,000, in some cases—and as 5G wireless starts to unlock the technology’s potential, AR is ready for takeoff. Compared to virtual reality (VR), an all-encompassing experience that takes the user to an entirely new world, AR is less complicated to experience and produce. Technological overlays simply enhance a person’s interaction with their existing environment, instead of entirely replacing it with a virtual one.

And while AR applications date back to 2000, it’s only in the past five years that AR has gained any traction. In the mid-2010s, Pokémon GO and Snapchat did much of the work to transform AR from niche to mainstream. AR has given Snapchat, in particular, the ability to cement its relationship with younger users who don’t interact with brands in the same ways their parents do. 

According to averages from the brand, over 75% of the Snap community engages with augmented reality to communicate, play, and learn every day. Other brands are taking a page out of that book—Apple’s new Clips app, a video creation tool akin to TikTok, allows users to scan a room with their camera to add AR effects (like falling confetti) to it.  

These are some of the innovative ways companies are using AR to increase engagement, sometimes (see Burger King) at the playful expense of their competition, with their audience across all platforms.

New Experiences For Established Brands 

Morton Salt

You might not think that a 173-year-old company that sells table salt would be a good candidate for an AR campaign, but when grocery store customers happened upon Morton’s products, they were greeted by a mysterious QR code on the label. Once scanned by their phone cameras, dancing digital versions of the Morton Salt Girl and various fruits and vegetables appeared, each with a corresponding recipe for a new dish. The campaign, called “Erase Food Waste,” was part of a strategy to get people to make better use of their leftovers, rather than throwing them out in a landfill.

“Because our product is used for preservation, and it’s an essential ingredient, there’s a great tie to what salt can do for you as a cook but also .. make a positive impact,” said Paul Jackiewicz, Morton’s director of brand strategy and communications.

MF Doom

Artists, too, are getting in on the AR to give fans a new way to experience their work. Before he died in late 2020, MF Doom—a rapper known for his iconic mask and supervillain personality—partnered with NFT marketplace Illust Space to auction off AR masks signed by the rapper himself. The masks came in a few unique styles, and he promoted the virtual masks on Instagram with a video showing them in iconic pop culture scenes.

After Doom passed away, the limited-release masks became even more highly-coveted, and one of the augmented reality masks sold for the equivalent of $810,000 in the cryptocurrency Ethereum.

White Castle

The storied burger brand, which celebrated its 100th anniversary this past March, partnered with Coca-Cola to commemorate the occasion and embrace AR. A collection of anniversary-themed beverage cups had QR codes on the side, and when a guest scanned the code with their cell phone camera, the graphics on the cup came to life. Each cup tells a different part of White Castle’s history.

The Columbus, Ohio-based company hired a local artist named Bryan Moss to design the old-school artwork for the cups, as well as a large mural with a similar theme at the White Castle’s headquarters. A perfect example of marketing during a pandemic, White Castle’s strategy gives younger consumers the ability to engage with the brand in an immersive way that combines the physical and the digital while respecting social distancing guidelines. 

Pizza Hut 

In March, the pizza franchise jumped on the trend by designing several limited-edition boxes with a grid from the classic video game Pac-Man on the top panel. When the customer used their phone camera to scan a QR code on the side panel, they were brought to a site that allowed them to play the game with AR characters on the grid from the box. 

Additionally, players that posted their game scores on Twitter were entered to win a Pac-Man game cabinet—reusable cup full of quarters not included.

Seth King is a writer and editor based in Boston.

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