Advertising Real-World Products in Video Games

Whether the advertisements we see all around us are the brainchilds of Madison Avenue or of the local lawn care company, we cannot seem to dodge the onslaught. And it extends well beyond traditional product placements in newspaper, radio, and television.  Corporations now place their advertisements on escalator steps, sidewalk trash receptacles, and even on restaurant bathroom stalls.

As if all that were not enough, now we increasingly find advertisements embedded into video games. Historically, few companies used product placements in video games, and until quite recently, game-based advertisements remained a peculiar approach to delivering brand messages. In Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames, author Ian Bogost asserts, “Although advertising in videogames can be found as early as the arcade cabinets of the mid-1970s and home consoles of the early 1980s, popular opinion still understands the trend as a relatively new one.”  Atari VCS titles such as Johnson & Johnson’s Tooth Protectors (1983) and the Ralston-Purina inspired Chase the Chuck Wagon (1983) existed, but these were less than common.

Tooth Protectors Game from Johnson & Johnson

During the industry’s formative years, the core gaming audience—adolescent males—possessed little purchasing power, and mainstream marketers looked elsewhere. However, as the demographic became increasingly diverse, mass marketers began to see potential in the medium.

Today, in-game advertisements—which often are only static signs or billboards within the gaming landscape—are increasing. EA Sports’ FIFA International Soccer (1994) contained signage for both Panasonic and Adidas, in addition to ads for EA’s own products.  Some games mirror real-world baseball stadiums and race cars with advertisements for products ranging from wireless networks to soft drinks. In fact, ads like these are such a part of our everyday existence that these games might feel unrealistic without advertising. Could you imagine walking into a professional sports arena that has no ads?

FIFA International Soccer Screen Shot

Another type of game-related advertising that recently became popular is the “advergame,” which is a video game designed around a specific brand identity. While the majority of these games possess less content and are easier to produce than typical titles, large-scale advergaming campaigns exist. In 2002, the U.S. Army launched America’s Army as part of a highly successful recruiting and public relationship initiative. In 2006, Burger King got into the mix and sold millions of Xbox titles, such as Big Bumpin’, for an additional few dollars with their value meals.

Big Bumpin' from XBOX 365

In late 2008, in-game advertising caught the media’s attention when the Obama campaign paid for an advertisement in the Xbox 360 racing title Burnout Paradise. The future president’s image and campaign web address sat high above the game’s virtual streets as players raced below. Pundits debated whether Obama’s attempts to court a younger audience proved a hypocritical statement, because he also encouraged kids to play fewer video games and get outside to play.

Obama Ad from XBOX 360

Video game advertising will only continue to increase. A recent article in the New York Times  focused on the Nintendo title Busy Scissors, a role-playing game created around the Redken line of hairstyling products. And an article on Kotaku highlighted the partnership between Chrysler and Activision to promote both the Jeep Wrangler line and the new title Call of Duty: Black Ops.

What are your perceptions of in-game advertisements? Do they add to the realism of a game or distract from it? Are there any that stand out in your mind as particularly good or bad?