Misha Galkin (Ed Stoppard) is a marketing executive working in Russia. One day, he meets the boss's daughter, Abby Gibbons (Leelee Sobieski). The two quickly hit it off despite her father's attempt to keep them apart, and Abby enlists Misha's help in a Russian plastic surgery show (an adaptation of ABC's Extreme Makeover). Meanwhile, marketing guru Joseph Pascal (Max von Sydow) works with the heads of various fast food franchises to make fat popular, and Misha and Abby wind up the scapegoats for his fear-based marketing campaign which rises from the star of their show being rendered comatose by the surgery.
After his life goes downhill from there, Misha retreats from the city to the country, far from the marketing which he now believes causes harm to others. Guided by a dream, he conducts an elaborate ritual where he slaughters a red cow and bathes in its ashes. He is picked up by Abby, who wants him to meet his son. Misha then learns he's been given the power to see the living personifications of brands, being fed by the public's desire for them.
Tropes in Branded:
- Batman Gambit: To combat what he now sees, Misha starts waging aggressive advertising campaigns, literally teaching his brands to kill the competition. This leads into a larger gambit to make advertising so negative that the public will demand its complete ban, totally killing off what he sees. It very nearly failed, but worked out in the end.
- Bland-Name Product: Up to 11. Examples include GrandSoft and Ooogle.
- Blood Magic: Misha conducts the Red Heifer ritual, giving him his unnatural sight.
- Body Horror: Miniature advertising mascots stuck to people like leeches, breeding from them to merge with the larger mascots and grow even larger.
- Bolt of Divine Retribution: Misha is randomly struck in the opening, which marks him as someone who will have an unusual life. After Joseph Pascal's fast food campaign goes down in flames, he is rather suddenly struck down (and somehow vaporized) by a lightning bolt.
- The Cuckoolander Was Right: The film opens by listing the names of various famous people who would be considered insane by modern standards yet changed the world, offering that this ability to see what others cannot is actually a gift that allowed them to succeed.
- Fiction 500: Joseph Pascal is wealthy enough to own his own island.
- Imagine Spot: In the Shame If Something Happened scenario below, Misha imagines getting an Ass Shove from his uncle using a red hot poker.
- Ironic Echo: Misha ends up echoing Joseph Pascal when he begins his own marketing plan to take out the fast food industry.
- Luke, You Are My Father: Abby returns after a six-year timeskip to show Misha their son.
- Mascot: Everywhere, and they're alive.
- Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Ultimately, it's not clear if what Misha is seeing is real, or merely a hallucination born of his innate talent for marketing. Then again, the moving cow head constellation turns out to be the narrator.
- My God, What Have I Done?: Misha's boss works for the CIA, and part of the condition for financing Misha's business is that he spy on his clients and deliver reports. Knowing jack about spying and assuming no one would care what he wrote, Misha painted his former boss, a kiosk owner, as a drug dealer. The CIA leaked this to the New York Times, the Russian mob read it, and the owner quickly found himself accosted by them for not giving them a cut. This taught Misha just how dangerous his chosen occupation could be.
- No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: When he was working as a kiosk employee, Misha gave his boss several tips on maximizing profit. When he asked for a raise, he was fired on the spot. Lesson? Get the cash up front.
- Shame If Something Happened: In flashbacks, the benefactor for Misha's newly-created marketing agency demands payment in the form of either cash (which he doesn't have) or the deed to Misha's flat. He leaves the third option up to Misha's imagination.
- Trailers Always Lie: The trailers would have you believe that the mascots are real, living beings controlling the world from behind the scenes. The film is actually about the prevalence of marketing itself and its detrimental effect on our lives, with the advertising monsters just being used as a metaphor. One wonders if that was intentional, given the content of the film.