The Wall Street Journal has an interesting article today, particularly apropos of yesterday’s thing about the MTA’s proposal to rename subway stations for corporate sponsors. (Journal subscribers can read the article here; if you’re not a subscriber, why not? You can download a 155K PDF of it here.)
The article in question is about product placement in video games, and how the advertising industry is all agog about it.
That in itself is somewhat interesting. It’s hard to sort out cause and effect here, but the advertising industry always seems to be agog about something, but for all the ad industry’s focus on novelty, very few of its innovations actually work, at all.
This is true behind the scenes as well as in its product: In the mid-1990s, Chiat/Day was famously agog about ‘hoteling‘, the idea that worker-bees should not be assigned permanent work spaces, but that they should just come in in the morning and sit down at whatever desk was free. Computer networking and modern phone systems make this possible, if not practicable: hoteling was a disaster. Chiat/Day — an organization that’s supposed to have its finger on the pulse of how to motivate people — completely ignored the fact that people don’t like this. The program had some good results — like introducing cordless phones so that people are reachable even when they’re not sitting at their desks — but overall the somewhat predictable effect was to make people feel uncomfortable and disconnected.
Nevertheless, because Chiat/Day knows nothing like it knows how to promote things, and so a lot of other companies attempted to duplicate this harebrained scheme, and they continue to attempt to duplicate it, even long after Chiat/Day themselves concluded that it wasn’t cost-effective and went back to a more traditional approach.
Anyway, the current idea in advertising seems to be that, since people aren’t watching TV ads, maybe they’ll notice our products if we stick ‘em into video games somehow.
For years, videogames have been stealing away consumers who might otherwise have been watching television or reading a magazine. Now they’re beginning to attract business from some of the U.S.’s most coveted advertisers, part of a broader assault by new media and technology on the traditional ad industry.
It’s not a ‘broader assault’ by anything but the advertisers themselves, though. Consider an average TV show: you watch it because you find it entertaining or informative. Several times an hour, the stuff you find entertaining or informative stops, and the ads come on.
These ads, any advertising 101 textbook will tell you, need to grab your attention somehow and hold it, and then present you with whatever specific message the advertiser wants to get across. Ads for a few products — diet soda, chewing gum, and beer most prominently — do this by putting good-looking women on the screen. In ads for some other things, you can generally count on seeing a baby. These are some very basic attention-getters for certain demographics, and they’re based in biology.
Beyond those few things, though, advertisers seem to be entirely out of ideas. One of the few new ones I’ve read about lately is to somehow rig the software in TiVos and similar devices so that you cannot skip the ads. If they don’t want to see the ads, we’ll force ‘em to see the ads! That’s certainly a way to build audiences and goodwill.
Anyway, maybe someone put down the crack pipe long enough to realize that. Unfortunately, the video game he played while sobering up gave him an idea.
There are two different approaches to product-placement in video games, I gather: the first involves sticking your product or logo into a commercial video game, and the second involves making your own video game that’s centered, somehow, around your product.
The main problem with the second approach is that there are not that many products to which it’s even applicable. It works for cars — and according to the Journal article, Jeep has had some success with it — but what other products can be so easily turned into a game? ‘Dish Washer 3: Plates of Rage’ might be useful for Dawn product-placement, but it would suck as a game. Most of the things advertised on TV these days seem to be medications of one sort or another, but somehow I don’t think that ‘Flonase Floyd In The Land Of Pollen’ — the gameplay would involve wandering around and breathing — would find too many willing players.
This leaves the first approach, the idea of sticking your logo or product into a video game that people actually buy. While this might work for any product, it doesn’t work for all games: you can easily have a billboard for Snuggle high above Vice City, but that doesn’t make sense in a lot of other games. If video-game producers follow the path of the TV companies, they’ll start tailoring the games to the advertisers’ needs, by ranking ‘advertisibility’ near the top of the list of design considerations. We’ll wind up with games like “Drive Down Billboard Alley ’08″, which no one in their right mind will pay for, and the advertisers will again speak of an ‘assault’ and will come up with another cockamamie scheme, possibly involving naming rights again. Viagra Presents Staten Island. The Great Ohio Experience, Brought To You By Depends. The USS Cialis, CVN-65: 280,000 shaft horsepower: for the whole weekend! Warning: those with high blood pressure should not use nuclear-powered aircraft carriers.
I’ve written before (warning: embedded Quicktime) about the hazards of product placement, as well as about its potential. The problem with most product placement is the same as the product with most advertising in general these days: the advertisers feel that the audience owes their attention to the advertisements for supporting whatever main content is being supported by the advertising. Unsurprisingly, the audience sees it differently, and the eagerness of the advertising industry to find alternative methods of getting their messages in front of the public suggests that they don’t have any real idea why their TV ads are not working. As long as they don’t know that, they’re not likely to be able to come up with product-placement strategies — whether for video games or anything else — that achieve their goals, either.