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.


It may be that the ads get the attention they want, just by being there. "Terrorist under the Coke ad" may become a CS phrase. For cheapo products like toothpaste and soft drinks, decisions are made at a subliminithingy level. When given a choice, consumers buy the one brand that sticks out in their mind. Glaring over Mr. Clean while looking for that damn counterterrorist AWP-er may just clinch it.

I just hope they won't put Gillette ads in a Roman era RPG or something like that. Those marketing guys/ game developers must be smart enough to avoid such blunders, no? Even EA? Of course, in the long term this may mean futuristic or contemporate settings may get more funds more easily because they're more suitable for advertising. That, or I'm talking out of my ass again.

They work simply because they are ridiculously inexpensive to use.. so as long as the companies advertising continue to pay Microsoft to put their products into games.. then they'll keep doing it.

I see it less as ads and more along the lines of product placement down the road.. sorta like Hollywood.

I mean.. today its ads on billboards or vending machines in game.. but there is no reason that objects in the game could be branded.. and eventually even become dynamic. So say a soda can in the game could one week be Coke.. and the next week be Sprite.

Down the road further depending on Sony's success I see Microsoft moving the so called Silver Live subscription to an ad based subscription.. and the Gold being the no ads version.

I am impressed that ads can be analyzed so. It's like analyzing the color of toilet paper. I don't even really see ads anymore. They're muted background noise. They're the contentless grey rectangles scattered about webpages. They're blank buffer pages between the legitimate ones in magazines, for packing purposes I'm sure.

I read 'Ogilvy ads' and all I can think of is the Ogilvy of 1984, the war hero that didn't really exist.

Boo-ya! Great ad- err, piece, Kat. I feel, if a developer is smart they will put just enough advertising in their game as to not piss off their audience. Otherwise, who cares what the true effects of advertising in game are? Marketing departments have all kinds of voodoo-whodo reasons for how advertising seeps into your brain and makes your buy something regardless. Let them believe what they want to, if it helps make a developer's life a little easier, I'm for it. If that money only goes into the pockets of EA stock holders and executives, then screw the whole system. Perhaps you are fighting against some kind of Minority Report-style future dystopia, where the advertising is invasive and oppressive? That's a fight worth fighting.

Bring on more game-related front page articles

Nice article Kat. In game advertising gets under my skin. Maybe more than it should.
I expect it to get much worse before it gets any better though. With the advent of the DVR there's a looooot of advertising which isn't getting watched. I think companies will ham-handedly try to saturate other venues as much as they can to try to offset this. Yay.

Ads... sigh... they will never stop, will they? There is only one thing left to do... did it come to this?

We though our lives were perfect, we were wrong. Among the shadows, M.A.C. Virus"… it grew, it spread, and it was getting ready to strike. When M.A.C. was ready"… it was too late, for us. It has consumed all media"… there for gaining a gateway to every man, woman and child. Few try to resist and try to fight off the M.A.C. virus"… some fled"… but ultimately we all knew the end was inevitable. This virus is too powerful; build for consumption of all"… survives by destroying all. Now it's at our door steps"… the last plane that is free of M.A.C"… our virtual escape, will be no more.

There is no more running, there is no more fighting"… M.A.C. will strike and its just matter of time. Time of which we have so little!

How did it come to this? Time grows shorter and there is one thing left to do"…


At least I knew the life without M.A.C. virus"… at least I die free!

I so hate you Massive Ad Campaign, you will never turn me in to consumer whore!

Nicely written.

In game ads are already evolving a little. When I saw Burger King's annoying/amusing/hated/loved 'King' character come out as a boxer's trainer in Fight Night 3, I laughed, and then cried.

Its on a whole other level from 'Lets take another look at that knockout brought to you by Burger King'. The character is a part of the game, he even gives you bonuses if you hire him as your trainer. (something I refuse to do) I dont know if it's more or less successful from a financial standpoint. It got me talking about Burger King here, but I've still never been to one of their fast food joints.

For the "informative copy" to be integrated requires a touch more whoring on the part of developers.

"Snake! By applying the Dial antiperspirant in your inventory, you will sweat less, even in combat!"


"By sweating less, Snake, you'll be less appealing to predators!"

"--Crab Battle!"

"And more appealing to women. Remember our picnic after the Jamming Technologies session?"


"I remember I brushed my hair 100 times that afternoon before packing a basket with cold chicken, sushi, some carrots, and a bottle of wine. You started to complain that I had taken so long, but then we saw the sunset and our breaths were taken away. It was so beautiful, Snake, and the chicken Sharpenedstick Tapir had cooked was so delicious when it was chilled. I'm sorry, Snake, I shouldn't distract you with silly memories..."

"--Crab Battle!"

The other approach, of course, is to jam that copy into the text for a quest.


I can't help it, every time I read this phrase:

a woman's thigh playing peek-a-boo behind a dress slit

I get too distracted and my brain simply won't process any more text.

Have I ever mentioned I'm a "leg guy"?

I shudder to imagine the day when players actually use name-brand products in the game. Say a can of "Generic Cola" restores 50hp but a can of "Coca-Cola" restores 100hp and gives you a stat buff for 30 seconds. That kind of product placement might actually sell more real-life Coke as players begin to associate the virtual product with the real. However, I become physically agitated just thinking about that scenario. Ugh. Maybe this is going on already? I'm not as hip to the gaming scene as I used to be.

Edit: Right, the BK trainer. I guess I was thinking more generally, plus he freaks me out so I tend to unconsciously ignore him

*points 3 posts up where he said the BK 'King' is the best trainer in the game*

Edit: Although I doubt anyone is suprised EA would be the one to sell out so fully first

Advertising in games needs to be like inadvertent advertising in movies. Guy X just got of work and comes home, takes off his tie, grabs a Coke and sits on the couch. Guy Y is driving down the street past several billboard ads, various fast food joints when he stops at Wal-Mart to pick up stuff when he runs into the girl of his dreams, ect, ect. Things like that, where the advertising is more "accidental."

I walk around drinking arizona brand ice tea with a bag of planters peanuts, not because i'm trying to promote them, because thats what I like, it should be the same with in-game ads. They need to integrate the products without them looking out of place. You can have your Mercedes-Benz in Project Gotham because its a racing game, with cars. You can have Lucas Kane from Indigo Prophecy grab a coke out of his fridge because it looks natural. You can't however integrate products into a lot of games, any games that take place out of this time period are out. You can't have Assassains Creed featuring coke ads, you can have Counter-Strike with coke ads. Its all a matter of subtlety and belivability.

Am I the only one who actually likes in-game advertising? I think it adds a hint of realism to some kinds of games, and in ones like Anarchy Online, it's kind of fun to see real-world ads mixed with ads for fake products or whatnots in the game environment.

dhelor wrote:

Am I the only one who actually likes in-game advertising? I think it adds a hint of realism to some kinds of games, and in ones like Anarchy Online, it's kind of fun to see real-world ads mixed with ads for fake products or whatnots in the game environment.

You may be. My major problem with in-game advertising is the feeling that if we give them an inch, they'll take six miles. I really don't see the "Fun" in having to get the "Enchanted +4 Polo Fleece from Old Navy" in a Guild Wars quest. That sounds... retarded.

My contention has always been that it matters. I don't want to see a Sprite machine in World of Warcraft, nor do I particularly want to see copies of Maxim laying around in Bioshock. However, I can't imagine a NASCAR game, or a Soccer game looking right without the ads.

Like the Lord told Bender, "It takes a light touch." The problem is, that phrase has no meaning to marketing.

I dont fear out of control advertising in games.. I believe that in the end the Pubs and Devs will be intelligent enough to realize that the in game ads or product placement must fit the game and genre.. I think anything over the top will turn of the consumer resulting in low sales of that particular title and thus a negative reaction from those seeking to buy ad space.

TheGameguru wrote:

I think anything over the top will turn of the consumer resulting in low sales of that particular title and thus a negative reaction from those seeking to buy ad space.

Ergo the poor sales that Fight Night Round 3 saw, what with the blatant and over the top placement of the Burger King trainer alongside all the other in-your-face advertising in the game.

Farscry wrote:

Ergo the poor sales that Fight Night Round 3 saw, what with the blatant and over the top placement of the Burger King trainer alongside all the other in-your-face advertising in the game.

Have you ever watched boxing? That's realism.

I mean we're talking about a sport that will have "BUD: King of Beers" right there on the playing surface.

Personally, I want ads in games to fail by any means necessary. It's a horrible intrusion and I cannot support any game that participates in such behavior. But I digress.

Professionally, I'm inclined to believe that ads in games will soon fade from favor. Let me explain.

Over the last fifteen plus years, there has been a tangible shift in media consumption. The dawn of the Internet and the maturity of the gaming industry has trained a generation or two of consumers who are not reliant on the traditional TV/radio/print vehicle for entertainment. Viewing choices have become tailored to the individual versus the masses. Broadcasting has been shifted to narrowcasting.

The elusive search for the legendary consumer known by the code P18-34 has led advertisers to the doorstep of the gaming industry. Vast numbers of people are turning off their TV and spending more primary viewing time on the computer. Surfing the net, playing games, downloading TV shows/music, etc. If the audience is in this space, then doesn't it make sense that the advertising should follow? They seem to think so, however I disagree.

In the immortal words of Marshall McLuhan, "The medium is the message." There is a specific and deliberate context to advertising. For example, think of a few well regarded ads: the "1984" spot for Apple or the Absolut ads on the back cover of most magazines in the 1990's. These great ads were a part of the context of the medium. The iconic imagery in the Apple spot coming through your television, and the static continuity of the Absolut ads given unique flair by avant garde artists of the day: they all represent the best in how to pawn your product via a specific media type.

So this leads us to ads in games. What context does a Coke ad have in Counterstrike? A Deuce Bigalow ad in Planetside? Frankly, it's just a disembodied piece of creative hanging out there to possibly pique the awareness of a P18-34. So where does this lead? Are games going to be designed with ad support in mind (this brings bad memories of SWAT 4 and posters covering almost every available square inch of wall space - was it done on purpose)? Games are not designed as a content delivery vehicle, they are an interactive experience. Does an ad contribute to that interactive experience or does it detract and intrude? You can guess how I feel. This leads us toward the slipperly slope of product placement vs. ads in games. A Wookie *drinking* a Coke in the catina as opposed to a Coke ad on the wall of a building. Don't get me started.

This is all highly subjective. I'm jaded and opinionated because I work in the ad business. It's a love hate relationship for sure. However, the real crux of the matter - and why ads in games will fail: measurement - or lack thereof. There is no established or accepted practice to quantify the impact of ads in games. In every other media type available you can measure insane amounts of metrics in regards to your ads. Ad agencies can put forth a plethora of statistics to advertisers that say "we reached your target audience with this degree of effectiveness." When it comes to measuring Internet and gaming usage, a line has been drawn in the Ether, if you will. People are willing to allow companies to monitor their viewing, radio, and print consumption habits for ratings purposes. People are NOT willing to let companies monitor their on-line consumption habits. When agencies can't quantify the effectiveness of ads in games, advertisers will be wary to spend more money in this space. Hopefully, they'll move on the next new medium du jour. In fact, I'm betting on it.

Edited for clarity and spelling.

A Wookie *drinking* a Coke in the catina as opposed to a Coke ad on the wall of a building. Don't get me started.

The problem I have with rants against Ads in VideoGames is that people always take this extreme form of example.. IT hasnt happened yet and I'm willing to bet it wont.. If this type of product placement hasnt happened in Hollywood then chances are its not going to happen in games..

I'm not saying you wont see a Demolition Man type future product placement in some games..because you may.. but your never going to see an Orc in WoW suddenly start downing Red Bulls.


Forget to mention your point on metrics.. there are certainly some metrics in the existing system today. I'm still under NDA but there are several metrics to Massive (now Microsoft) Ad technology for videogames.

TheGameguru wrote:

Forget to mention your point on metrics.. there are certainly some metrics in the existing system today. I'm still under NDA but there are several metrics to Massive (now Microsoft) Ad technology for videogames.

GG is right, depressingly right. Ad agencies don't make a living on magic, after all. They usually track what we do down to minute levels. Don't kid yourself into thinking that companies don't track everything you do. Any system that requires you to log in - XBox Live, Steam, World of Warcraft, etc, etc. Google introduced gmail so that you could sign in and they could track your searches.

It's the only thing I don't trust about computers. The ability to create 1984 levels of Big Brother are already there.