Toyota Ad Shows How Game Is Changing

A Toyota Yaris takes out bad guys in a promotional video game Xbox 360 players can download free.
A Toyota Yaris takes out bad guys in a promotional video game Xbox 360 players can download free.
By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Behold the Toyota Yaris. It's moderately priced, gets good mileage, and has a gun turret capable of destroying toasters and bike-riding sumo wrestlers as it cruises down a track.

Not every Yaris shopper gets the turret option; that's a feature reserved for Xbox 360 owners who download a free promotional video game Toyota is releasing today to build awareness of the Yaris among 20-somethings.

As the video game market grows, advertisers are increasingly looking to reach into the game world -- to win the attention of people who spend more time with a game controller than with a TV remote in their hands.

Product placement and in-game advertising aren't new in video games, though they are increasingly becoming a big business. TV tracking firm Nielsen said the market for game advertising was worth $75 million last year and is on track to grow to $1 billion by 2010. Sony announced Monday that it would open a business division to sell in-game advertising for PlayStation titles.

Advertising and product placement are commonplace for games set in modern, urban environments. When they solve crimes in a new video game based on the "CSI" TV franchise, for example, players encounter a version of Las Vegas that's heavy on Visa billboards.

In a new skateboarding game from Electronic Arts, players enter information by typing on a virtual T-Mobile Sidekick cellphone.

Though it's rarer for an advertiser to build an entire game from scratch to promote a product, the Yaris game isn't the first "advergame" to hit the Xbox 360. Last year, Burger King made a series of games featuring its king mascot and sold them at its restaurants for $3.99 apiece. The chain said it sold 3.5 million copies.

Chad Harp, a spokesman for Toyota, said the Yaris makes sense for a video game because of its young target market.

"We wouldn't do a Toyota Sienna game, for example," Harp said of a minivan model. "That wouldn't be appropriate for this audience."

A developer best known for Sonic the Hedgehog games was hired to create the title. Harp said the company aimed for a product good enough to hold the attention of game fans.

"There have been other companies that have tried to do video games, but they weren't authentic, they weren't real," he said. "Gamers are very passionate about what they do, so we didn't want to just stumble in there."

Video games aren't the only unusual way Toyota is trying to reach this market. Specially decked-out models of the Yaris have made appearances at music festivals and comic book conventions, and the car has a MySpace page.

Toyota has also featured a commercial for its Tacoma truck set in the computer game World of Warcraft.

Sam Huxley, vice president of marketing at New Media Strategies, a marketing firm in Arlington, said that even if the free game is a dud, it will probably be widely downloaded because Xbox owners get "gamerscore" points associated with their online identities every time they make progress on a new game. The points are worth nothing -- but some Xbox 360 fans play games specifically to beef up their numbers for bragging rights in the Xbox's online community.

"There are enough point junkies out there for this to attract a sizable audience," he said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company