Clumsy To Cool: Branded Entertainment And The Rules Of In-Game Ads

By Marissa Gluck and Aram Sinnreich, Radar Research, LLC

By now it has become conventional wisdom that mass audience fragmentation, ad-skipping technologies, and the shift to interactive entertainment have (at best) challenged traditional media models, and (at worst) will lead to massive structural and economic upheaval. To compensate, audiences are now bombarded with marketing messages everywhere--as plot lines in their favorite TV shows, in the supermarket aisle, in video games, in the movie theater, and on their cell phones. There seems to be no virgin marketing territory left, either real or virtual. As consumers become inundated, marketers and content producers must constantly search for new ways to reach them effectively.

Marketers are now looking to go beyond simple product placement toward more sophisticated branded entertainment. One platform gaining increasing currency with marketers is brand placement in video games--growing from a $75 million market in the US this year to about $1 billion by 2010. Yet the unique psychographics of the game-playing consumer and the relationship between content and user make video games a dicey proposition for marketers, and much more difficult to navigate than weaving Banana Republic into the plot line of "Project Runway." As a result, Radar Research proposes the following Nine Do's and Don'ts of In-Game Advertising:



1. Don't allow product placement in video games to diminish game-play quality. For instance, don't enforce special rules for your product or brand that don't apply to the rest of the game. Likewise, don't insist that players perform tasks that don't enhance the game-play just for the sake of a brand interaction.

2. Do provide opportunities to promote action. Look beyond branding--video games are interactive, and in-game marketing should be as well. While players will rebel against marketing if it becomes an obstacle to enjoyable game play, marketers should provide opportunities for players to interact with the brand, allowing them to click through to branded environments, Web sites, and game extensions such as skins and mods.

3. Don't rely on traditional creative and media models. The immersive environment of video games allows marketers to unleash their creative genius. Certainly, a billboard on a virtual building or highway is now fairly commonplace and unimaginative. A character rappelling down a billboard in Splinter Cell is a bit more exciting, but the types of creative opportunities are practically limitless. In video game environments, the entire world is valuable and malleable. There are not only new rules for creative branding, but also new modes of buying and measuring these placements. It is still a nascent industry, with no standards to guide a marketer or game publisher. Companies like Nielsen Entertainment are working to establish guidelines for measuring the impact of brand presences on key metrics such as awareness and lift, based on levels of pervasiveness and integration.

4. Do know your audience. Marketers and many game developers are under the mistaken belief that the universe of gamers consists solely of men ages 18-34. While video games certainly provide a pipeline into this demographic, who have all but abandoned television, young men are not the only segment playing games. Women are increasingly playing games, particularly online games at sites such as Pogo, Gamespot, and MSN Games. According to the Entertainment Software Association, 43 percent of game players today are female. In addition, there is far greater age distribution than most realize, with 35 percent of game players under the age of 18 and 19% over the age of 50. Marketers need to tailor their brand presences to both the context of the game, and the unique psychographics and demographics of the game audience.

5. Don't be afraid of self-deprecation. Gamers tend to be sophisticated, savvy, and somewhat cynical, with a uniquely interactive and critical relationship to the content. Gamers are more likely to enjoy a brand presence in their games when the campaign is ironic and self-aware, as in the case of the Burger King mascot's (the creepy, giant-headed one from the recent TV and online ad campaign) presence in EA's Fight Night Round 3. A player can add the mascot to his or her entourage when a side-mission challenge is completed. Burger King should be commended for its inventive, edgy use of its mascot, but could have pushed it even further if players were able to spar with the King. Fast food chain Carl Jr.'s has no such reservations; in Burnout Revenge, players will be able to drive and crash one of the company's trucks. Gamers get the joke. What turns them off is marketers brazenly attempting to fool, coax, or manipulate them. Successful placements are so over-the-top, so exaggerated, so weirdly post-modern, that gamers get it.

6. Do use Easter eggs. Marketers should aim beyond the obvious. Easter eggs, or hidden features buried inside the code of interactive entertainment, are not just a way for programmers to entertain themselves (although that is often their purpose); they have also become a way for programmers to reward engaged and enthusiastic audiences. There are now fanatical segments of the gamer culture devoted to finding and documenting Easter eggs. This segment can and should be leveraged effectively by marketers for its viral distribution power. One hidden treasure, posted to a gamer's forum and passed around via e-mail, can be infinitely more valuable that traditional marketing, at a small fraction of the price.

7. Don't ignore audio. Marketers tend to become fixated on the optical world their brand will be immersed in. However, a major component of that world is aural, and is too often ignored. Audio branding can become an essential in-game element. Electronic Arts has now had several multi-platinum soundtracks for games such as NBA Live and Madden Football and has become an increasingly important platform for labels to break new bands. Audio will not only be a critical element for music labels, but for brand marketers as well.

8. Do be sensitive to privacy and regulatory issues. Video games are fast becoming the political panderer's best friend. There have been multiple attempts by local, state, and federal legislators to regulate and scapegoat this industry. Obviously, marketers should avoid breaking any law regulating video games. However, more importantly at this stage, marketers need to be cautious about giving politicians a reason to step in and prematurely regulate a burgeoning market.

9. Don't imitate. As this market matures, there will be breakthrough examples of successful in-game advertising, but like all marketing, there is a law of diminishing returns. Copycats will never be as successful as innovators, or generate as much excitement. Marketers must constantly challenge themselves to follow innovation with innovation.

Marissa Gluck and Aram Sinnreich are executives with Radar Research, LLC

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