Sexy Cars and Coke Cans: Can In-Game Ads Work?
Currently circulating in Harper's Weekly is a sexy, two-page Mercedes Benz ad; maybe you've seen it? The first page is a bold photograph, the car equivalent of a woman's thigh playing peek-a-boo behind a dress slit: a gleaming tire; a sleek, ebony hood; and a tiny Benz logo, erect like a metal nipple. On the second page, above some copy filled with words like "standard-setting", "quality assurance", and "award-winning", hovers an equally confident headline:
You're not buying a car. You're buying a belief.
Generally ads are not this honest, and this one makes a brazen gamble, as if to shock you into compliance with its sincerity. Of course, I'm not buying a car; nobody purchases a brand-name object for the thing itself, especially not a Mercedes Benz. The name is part of the bargain; you buy Brand X because Brand X solves for Y in the equation of your identity.
I think this ad works because it understands that notion, toying with the seduction through paneling and minimalism and decreasing font sizes. It takes its time, building a rapport with you, knowing you will linger ever-so-lustfully over the photograph of the flirty car, ogling this automobile pornography with a silent, illicit craving--then, with a one-two punch, it exploits your motorcar arousal with convincing copy laden with facts and statistics. You hunger for a Mercedes Benz and now you know why. Therefore, you feel better about your raw lust because you can quantify it, and, frankly, you'd like to reward yourself, the ad, the company, and, hell, the world, by buying a Mercedes Benz.
This is the advertising ho-down, where purchases are made and squandered--a mating dance with worse music and less rancid cologne. And the harsh truth is that everyone is susceptible to this seductive method of marketing: the teasing picture, the information-laden copy, the call to action. The product may not be universal, but the method sure is.
Which is why in-game advertisements are, I believe, doomed to fail.
The Mercedes Benz ad knows that the purpose of any advertisement is to a) raise awareness of a product and b) convince consumers to take action. Using a strategy perfected by David Ogilvy, the father of American copywriting, this ad first grabs your attention (the striking, intriguing picture), and then explains why you should make a purchase (the informative copy). This tactic, although somewhat out of vogue, definitely works. But since an Ogilvy ad relies on the copy to do the convincing, not the photograph, it requires a consumer who must be already be somewhat interested in the product, if only enough to finish reading. Ogilvy ads need consumers who want to be persuaded and who are willing to expend time and effort to allow you to do so.
But time, interest, and effort are not what gamers have--at least, not while we're playing games. We are too focused on sniping our enemies, or banking that curve, or nailing a 720 ollie, to spare much concentration on processing messages extraneous to our current objectives. If placed in Counterstrike, Ogilvy ads simply wouldn't be read, no matter how slutty the car may be.
Another strategy of advertising relies on bombarding consumers with simple, easy-to-remember messages (not facts, per se, but catch-phrases, slogans, etc.), in the hopes that they'll recall the product come purchase time. These are the ads we typically see in videogames: text-less (or with minimal wording), bright, and colorful images emblazoned with a company logo--easy to spot, almost universally hated.
Of course, just because a consumer remembers your product doesn't mean they'll buy it. As well positioned as that Coke can might be in a Counterstrike level, and as hip an image as Coke cultivates by doing so, the placement doesn't provide an overwhelming reason to buy Coke instead of Pepsi. Remember the Deuce Bigelow movie posters in Planetside? As memorable as these ads were, poor ticket sales suggest players did not run out in droves to see Rob Schneider be molested by desperate, European biddies.
So why include these ads, then? Simply to raise further awareness of the Coke brand name, or to establish further corporate identity? I'm not sure I buy it. That argument suggests that there's some sort of tally in your brain kept by your precious neurons, tracking how many times you've seen Coke ads versus Pepsi ads, and if you rack up enough Pepsi notches, or if you learn enough about Pepsi's corporate "personality", then you'll automatically switch your beverage choice from Coke to Pepsi. To me, that sounds like a gross underestimation of the relationship between consumer and product. People make decisions based on information, not mental scorecards.
Besides, you barely have enough time to look at that Coke can when playing Counterstrike, and some argue that might be the point. Perhaps these ads have been designed to hit you on a subliminal level. That is, even if players don't consciously notice a product placement, somewhere, their minds will register what they've seen and remember it. For the ad agency's sake, however, I hope this isn't the case; subliminal messages have never been proven to work on any widespread, meaningful level, and their suggestive power has never stood up to systematic, scientific inquiry.
In-game advertising might find more success in games where pacing is less urgent and attention to detail is rewarded, such as adventure games, RPGs, and MMOs. But most companies considering in-game ads desire a white, professional, 18-to-35-year-old target audience; while, yes, those 'traditional audiences' do play these types of games in droves, a higher percentage of non-traditional audiences also play these games (as opposed to, say, SWAT 4). If you are a marketing maven who wants to successfully target the white, 29-year-old male gamer, and you have the choice between Dreamfall and Project Gotham Racing 4, which game would you choose?
Still, whether or not in-game ads work, someone important somewhere thinks they do; therefore, they are probably here to stay. If so, I am curious to see how marketing firms might evolve their tactics as they gain a better understanding of the medium. Will we continue to see billboards for dated, ridiculous movies and awkwardly placed beverage cans? Or will we--could we--see ads that build a relationship between ad and consumer, that craft persuasion and seduction, that sell beliefs instead of products? I think I might even welcome the latter, if only for a short time; after all, if rendered in the proper lighting, even a hubcap can look romantic.