Advertisers Are Getting Into the Game

By Mike Musgrove
Thursday, March 2, 2006

The 90th or so time you speed by the same Burger King in Rockport, it starts to dawn on you: There aren't any other types of fast food joints in this fictional, video game town.

Also, what's with the billboards? There are only a few different ads, and they're all for guy stuff like Edge shaving gel and Axe deodorant. What's more, it's impossible to play this title -- the Electronic Arts street-racing game Need for Speed: Most Wanted -- and miss the branding on the Cingular text-messaging service your character uses to get the latest tips or trash-talking challenges.

Product placement and in-game advertising are nothing new -- the '80s-era Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles once promoted a pizza chain in an arcade game -- but it's a trend that is rapidly turning from a novelty into a serious business. Nielsen Entertainment, the television tracking firm, has started to follow such advertising and estimates this will be a $75 million market in the United States this year and will grow to $1 billion by 2010.

It's not hard to see why gamemakers and advertisers might be attracted to each other. Advertisers have been trying to connect with a hard-to-reach market of young men who aren't spending as much time watching television while they invest dozens of hours cranking through a title like Need for Speed. Game publishers, meanwhile, are regularly looking for ways to offset their ever-growing software-development costs without making their products more expensive.

Thus, skateboard fans are suddenly finding themselves doing tricks off a Jeep Commander in American Wasteland, the new Tony Hawk game from Activision, while players of the company's recent True Crime titles might take a break from fighting gangs to recover a set of stolen Puma sneakers.

Game companies say they don't insert such ads if they don't somehow fit. "We don't approach advertising in our medium like an NBC would," said Dave Anderson, senior director of business management at Activision. "The products and the brands all have to make sense."

In-game marketing gets a mixed response from gamers, but many seem to accept it or even like it if it keeps in line with advertising they would expect to see in the real world. Such marketing can walk a fine line, though: When a Splinter Cell game featured superspy Sam Fisher rappelling off a billboard promoting a specific deodorant, it was kind of cool. But when other scenes gratuitously lingered on what brand of gum he chewed, some fans complained.

Sometimes, game fans embrace marketing if it's entertainingly weird. In EA's new boxing game, Fight Night Round 3, the Burger King mascot -- the retro one with the oversized head and the burgundy robes -- becomes part of a player's in-game entourage if players complete a side-mission challenge. On game Web sites, some fans have posted comments that the feature makes them more likely to pick up the game.

Julie Shumaker, director of in-game advertising at EA, said she wasn't worried that players would react negatively to the Burger King placement in Fight Night.

"We knew it was so over-the-top that the consumer would get it," she said. "It worked because we didn't pretend that it wasn't an ad." EA will put some form of advertising or product placement in about a third of its games this year, she said.

If game companies are exploring the comfort zones of gamers with this sort of thing, they're also exploring advertisers' limits. In the upcoming Burnout Revenge, players will be able to drive and crash a delivery truck for the Carl's Jr. burger chain.

But most advertisers are too squeamish to see their logos in a fiery crash. Need for Speed players can crash through a generic doughnut shop, but they can't crash through a Burger King. Many companies also steer away from games with mature content.

Nielsen studies have shown that gamers tend to remember products that they see prominently placed in games, but the in-game advertising business has been set back by the lack of a standardized way to measure the impressions that are made by an ad in one of their products.

"The media-planning environment can't operate without a standard metric," said Michael Dowling, general manager of Nielsen Interactive Entertainment. "That's what we're trying to produce."

Game industry execs argue that there are more variables to take into account in this area than in a 30-second television ad. In a brainy game that requires players to move slowly and study the in-game environment, ads might make more of an impression than ones in a faster paced "run-and-gun" shooter, said Monika Madrid, director of strategic sales and partnerships at game publisher Ubisoft.

As an increasing number of PC games and consoles are plugging into the Web for online matches, companies such as the New York-based Massive Inc. are springing up to launch ad campaigns that are updated whenever a player logs on.

One month, Massive will broadcast an ad in a virtual subway station to promote the sci-fi flick "Aeon Flux"; the next month, the same space might flog another movie, "V for Vendetta."

Massive can broadcast ads based on where players are located, as well. If a movie is opening in New York and Los Angeles, for example, Massive can put ads for the movie on the computer screens of players in those cities. Players in different countries might see the same marketing, but in a different language.

Massive chief executive Mitch Davis said he got the idea for the company while playing a Grand Theft Auto title years ago. He saw a store that was a parody of the Gap and he thought it would be cooler if the game's Vice City had real companies lining the streets instead of the game's satiric, Mad Magazine alternatives.

"I though as a gamer it would make a lot more sense for that ad to be real," he said. "That's something as gamers we're always looking for."

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