Video Game Advertising: From the Sidelines and into the Action

By Bobby Miller

Over the years, the nature of video game advertising has changed a lot. Back during the days of the NES—1985 or so—very few advertisements appeared in games. There were so few pixels to work with on the screen that placing ads anywhere would be awfully difficult without taking your attention away from the action. Besides, video games were a niche market anyway.

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A decade later, in-game advertisements became more common since they can reach a wider audience. They were quite common in arcade racing games. For example, in the “Rush” series, you often find Slim Jim billboards off to the side of the road.

And things only escalated from there. In “Need for Speed Underground 2”—a 2004 game released on the PlayStation 2, Xbox, and GameCube—you can drive by Burger King restaurants, Best Buy stores and Coca-Cola billboards, all while listening to 27 radio hits and contacting other in-game characters through Cingular’s service. According to the VGchartz website, the game sold nearly 5 million copies in the United States alone, so the product received its fair share of exposure.

However, video games—particularly social and app games—are rapidly becoming even more popular and is a trend that advertisers are not overlooking. The Nielsen Company, a consumer research company, found that the average person spends about 22.7 percent of their time online for social networking and 10.2 percent for games. Over 56 million Americans say they play games online regularly. This clearly shows that a huge audience can be found in online gaming ads, especially if they are tied to social networks like Facebook.

Advertising in Games: Using the Product in the Game

So, what are advertisers doing differently now than they were in the past? There are still plenty of games that feature billboard-like advertising, but businesses are going further than that. Today, the product placement is often a part of the action itself. This is particularly clear in the world of social gaming. “FarmVille,” for instance, features licensed products like McDonald’s hot air balloons and Cascadian Farm organic blueberries. The Mashable website has commented that this can reach a wide audience. Specifically, more than 1 million players bought those blueberries just days after entering the market.

How does this vary significantly from an in-game billboard? Here, the player is actually using the product, albeit in electronic form. Interaction should allow the brand name to stick better than it would with most advertising. You can ignore TV commercials, pesky pop-ups and billboards pretty easily, but when the ad is an interactive part of the game, you’ll see it as being more important.

Since this is a social game, there is also the possibility of fellow players discussing which products they like and why they like the product. That, too, may increase exposure. If you were told those Cascadian Farm organic blueberries were useful, you might try them in the game too. And, after a while, you might grow attached to them due to how they help you in the game, so your curiosity tells you to try them in real life. That is basically what each advertiser behind “FarmVille” is hoping for.

Also, companies are aware that people take their games seriously, so they might as well use that to their advantage. As the Mashable website points out, there are many games in which a player is rewarded with in-game currency for purchasing real world items. For example, a local pizza place might offer you some cash to use in a social game if you order pizza from it. So, you get to feed yourself and your love for gaming at the same time.

The Game is the Advertisement

So far, we have looked at examples of games that use advertising, though they don’t require it. For instance, those McDonald’s hot air balloons could have simply been plain ol’ hot air balloons, and the game would continue as usual. However, some games are made with advertising as the first priority. Games allow a company to brand its product well.

Branding, an important marketing skill, refers to “creating a name, symbol or design that identifies and differentiates a product from other products,” according to In other words, a company tries to have their product mean something to people on an emotional level. It motivates new buyers to try the product, and it creates loyalty among current customers—because the alternatives just don’t feel the same. For instance, Abercrombie & Fitch clothes are associated with popularity and status among teenagers and young adults. Disney has branded its products so well that people always associate the company with childhood magic. The company’s ups and downs in the box office never changed that.

And video games, of course, can relate to people on an emotional level. When dedicated gamers debate which console is the best, they believe they’re arguing about more than different pieces of plastic because each gaming system means something to them. When people spend time worrying about their “FarmVille” crops, you know the game means something to them. With more and more people becoming involved in the gaming world, companies have realized that they can use video games to create auras around their products.

This can work for just about any product—even cleaning supplies. Reckitt Benckiser, a manufacturer of cleaning and personal care products, uses free social games in order to attract customers. It has made online games from the ground-up to advertise its products. One of these games, “poweRBrands,” clearly integrates the gameplay with the company’s product. In the game, you play as a young businessperson trying to work your way to the top by making wise sales decisions. Each situation involves real products made by the company. Since this is a social game, you are often asked to share your accomplishments with your friends. That, of course, only leads to more exposure.

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An example of a decision that has to be made in the “poweRBrands” game

On a smaller level, many websites—especially those geared toward kids—feature games to play. This can attract people to the site and, of course, lead to some sales. The websites for McDonald’s Happy Meals, for Nickelodeon and more all have free games to play in hopes of drawing kids to their products.

Video Games Breathing Life Back into Characters

You can even find this trend in dedicated gaming. Around 2009, Disney decided that it wanted to make Mickey Mouse relevant to kids again and for him to be more than the Disney mascot seen on merchandise. In order to flesh out his personality and his world, the company could have made a movie. But instead, Disney asked Warren Spector—a video game designer known for the critically acclaimed “Deus Ex” series—to help design a video game about Mickey. The team got to work and, in 2010, released the Nintendo Wii game, “Epic Mickey.”

In the game, players are free to make many choices on their own, such as whether to erase enemies or to befriend them. In doing so, they can either emphasize Mickey’s cheerful, friendly side, which he is best known for, or they can flesh out his oft-forgotten mischievous side. This was important to Disney, which wanted to portray Mickey as a multidimensional character, not just a company icon. In an interview with Game Informer, Spector said that this was one of his development team’s top priorities.

The game ended up receiving decent reviews, with most criticism aimed toward technical issues, such as its camera. It is generally agreed, however, that the game successfully brought Disney’s past back to life. According to the Los Angeles Times, the game sold over 1 million copies in its first month. It is not surprising that a sequel is to be released Nov. 18, according to the Disney website, along with a Nintendo 3DS spinoff, called “Disney Epic Mickey: Power of Ilusion.”

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In light of this revived interest in Mickey Mouse, Disney animator Burny Mattinson would like to give him a new feature-length film. According to the website Bleeding Cool, it is not currently known whether Disney green lighted the idea or not. However, it is clear that video games have successfully made Mickey relevant again. And if the film is made, then it was a video game that made it happen.

Plus, on Amazon, searching for “Mickey” will not only bring up the video games but also many lines of clothes, DVDs, toys, books, and more, showing that interest in the mouse is alive and well across the market.

Overall, the interactive elements of a video game help its worlds and features come to life, making them important to the player. So, product placement in the game can allow that product to become important to the player in real life. As more and more of us partake in an occasional video game, it’s guaranteed that interest in video game advertising will rise.

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