Product Placement in Video Games
Product placement in video games isn’t all that unlike the advertising you come across in your everyday life. If you stood at any major city intersection and did a 360-degree turn, you’d likely be exposed to a whole slew of ads: on billboards and storefronts, stitched into people’s clothing, pouring out of car stereos. At any given moment, you might be wearing, eating or drinking, or getting from point A to B with a branded product. It’s not just video games: ads are everywhere.
Product placement is a tactical form of advertising that most consumers are pretty accustomed to finding lodged within almost every major medium, including movies, TV, podcasts, and social feeds. But to a greater degree than perhaps any of the aforementioned, anyone who spends their time gaming is bound to be familiar with encountering product placement in video games.
When poorly executed, product placement in video games can be jarring and disruptive, harshly removing the user from the illusion of the game’s narrative. When done well, however, product placement in video games can be so seamlessly integrated that players aren’t bothered by the in-game ads, because they naturally feel as if they should be there.
In-Game Advertising is Mutually Beneficial for Advertisers and Game Developers
Video games have long been an ideal platform for advertisers to boost their brand awareness, especially since gaming typically requires its audiences to be more immersed and perceptive than, say, TV commercials that can easily be put on mute, or movies where blatant product plugs can instantly kill the viewer’s suspension of disbelief.
For certain target markets, the potential harnessed by product placement in video games has skyrocketed, while traditional advertising avenues have experienced a rapid decline. For example, only one third of Generation Z claims to watch TV, and barely over half of millennials have a cable subscription.
Gaming is a tremendously popular pastime for members of Gen Z. Netflix even recently admitted that Epic Games’ Fortnite represented more of an all-around threat to their viewership than other entertainment platforms like HBO. However, Gen Z is notoriously guarded when it comes to being advertised to, and over 80% of the demographic skips past an ad at the first moment they get. To reach the next generation and keep up with the rapid-fire attention spans of today’s consumers, looking beyond traditional advertising models (like unskippable videos before a YouTube video) is critical.
If you’re an advertiser, one way to ensure that your product lands on as many eyes as possible is by striking a deal with the right video game. Instead of luring the audience to come to you, why not implant yourself directly in the platform where they’re already spending a lot of their time?
On the opposite end, if you’re a video game developer or designer, there’s money to be made with in-game advertising. Corporate advertising riddled throughout video games has enabled producers to secure bigger budgets that allow them to realize their vision on a larger scale than ever before.
Read on to discover the five main types of product placement in video games, and why in-game advertising may be the ideal avenue for your advertising and creative efforts.
5 Types of Product Placement in Video Games
There are five principal types of product placement in video games. Some were bygone trends that accompanied the burgeoning days of the gaming industry, while others have proven enormously effective and are undoubtedly here to stay. With video game product placement on the rise, understanding how advertisers have operated in this space in the past will be helpful toward determining which blueprint is best suited for you.
1. Fully Branded Games
Back in the ‘90s, brands were far more shameless about their product placement than they are today. In search of innovative ways to promote their product, brands decided to ride what was then seen as the fad of video games. In fact, a few brands went so far as to commission the development of entirely branded games.
Virgin Games (also known as Virgin Interactive Entertainment) was one of the major gaming publishers responsible for the branded games of the ‘90s. One such game was 1993’s Cool Spot, which was commissioned by 7UP. The game stars Cool Spot, a mascot for 7UP, as he traverses various nautical backdrops, leaping over soda bubbles, and occasionally diving into a pool filled with the beverage.
Another notable exercise in fully branded gaming was Virgin Games’ 1992 release M.C. Kids. Set in the fantastic world of McDonaldland, users collected the fast food restaurant’s signature Golden Arches while on a quest to retrieve Ronald McDonald’s bag from the Hamburglar. The game went hand in hand with Global Gladiators, another McDonald’s-branded release, which enabled users to play as the same characters in M.C. Kids, yet this time on a more action-packed adventure, as they journeyed through a number of levels armed with goo-launching Super Soakers.
For better or for worse, the fully branded games of the ‘90s were often heavy-handed, imperfectly designed, and resulted in varying degrees of success. As video games grew more commonplace and ceased to be viewed as part of a fleeting trend, an increasing number of brands saw the potential to experiment with more strategic product placement.
2. Product Appearances
After the initial wave of fully branded games were put out by the likes of Virgin Games, brands began to realize that it wasn’t actually necessary to develop new games from scratch, but rather to strike product placement deals with existing games that had already amassed a substantial audience. These in-game advertisements were intended to take a less blatant approach to promoting their brand, instead appearing seamlessly interwoven into the world of the game.
Some noteworthy examples of product appearances in video games include the glimpses of Duracell and Chapstick in Pikmin 2, Dole stickers on the ever-present bananas in Super Monkey Ball 1 and 2, as well as the sight of logos for KFC, Gap, Pizza Hut, Levi’s, and FILA in Sega’s Crazy Taxi.
When products merely reside in the background, the branding is nowhere near as explicit as it is in a branded game, but it makes for a more naturalistic form of advertising that is less disruptive to the gameplay. In fact, depending on the game, sometimes the presence of brand logos actually lends the game’s universe an enhanced sense of verisimilitude because it reflects the world we inhabit—which is, well, teeming with the logos and slogans of popular brands.
“The key to it working is walking the line between unacceptable product placement and making the virtual world seem as realistic as possible,” explains gaming expert Ellie Gibson. “We are surrounded by branding everywhere we go in the real world and while it can be integrated into gaming, they shouldn’t become so inundated with adverts that it becomes ridiculous.”
Creators ought to take note that, while the product appearance approach of in-game advertising can be subtle and realistic, it shouldn’t be too heavily relied upon. It doesn’t take much for product appearances to start to feel overdone, drawing too much attention away from the primary focus of the game: the gameplay.
3. Product Appearances That Impact Gameplay
Not all instances of product placement are relegated to the margins of a game’s environment. In a number of cases, game creators and advertisers have forayed into the realm of integrating products within a game that can actually impact the hero’s state as the game is played.
In the 2019 PlayStation 4 game Death Stranding, which is set in a post-apocalyptic United States, the game’s protagonist consumes Monster Energy drinks to recharge his stamina. The beverage’s utility in the gameplay makes the in-game presence of Monster Energy, an energy drink made by Monster Beverage, next to impossible to ignore.
Given that Death Stranding is a visionary, atmospheric game that drew mostly positive reviews, featured characters voiced by film actors Mads Mikkelsen, Léa Seydoux, and Margaret Qualley, and even offered guest appearances from the filmmakers Guillermo del Toro and Nicolas Winding Refn, it was an undeniably impressive project for Monster Beverage to be associated with.
On the other hand, some players questioned the survival of Monster Beverage in a ravaged world where most other brands had been made obsolete. In one critique, Polygon writer Colin Campbell calls the use of Monster Energy in Death Stranding “product placement at its most sensational and incoherent.” He cites J.F. Rey sunglasses and Acronym clothing, which also appear in the game, but whose “colours and styles are appropriate to the world. By contrast,” Campbell writes, “the drinks seem outrageously inappropriate, almost to the point of parody.”
It appears that energy drinks may be among the more commonly employed products to serve the dual purpose of product placement in video games as well as impacting gameplay: in Worms 3D, the game’s combatting worms drink Red Bull Energy Drink to gain gravity-defying powers, while no other real-life products are ever mentioned in the game.
4. Product Placement and Gameplay Intertwined
In some cases, real-life products aren’t simply placed within the world of the game to serve as tools that affect gameplay, but they’re actually so enmeshed with the gameplay that they cannot be unfastened from it. This mode of product placement can be routinely witnessed within the field of sports video games, where the likenesses of professional players are used, in addition to sports apparel or real-world vehicles.
Product placement deals where gameplay and ads are intertwined include everything from the Mercedes-Benz SUV players can choose as their racing vehicle in Mario Kart 8, to the skating brands showcased in the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series, where “in many cases every skateboard wheel, truck and deck aped a real-world brand and model.” In product placement instances such as these, you’re not zooming past the ad in the background, or intermittently using the product to level up in the game. Although the game isn’t a wholly branded entity like 7UP’s Cool Spot was, you’re still effectively playing the ad.
When advertising and gameplay are made inseparable, and players are placed in the driver’s seat to maneuver the avatars of real-world products, there are bound to be some implications that transcend the consequenceless world of the game. For example, when it comes to car racing games that use automobiles modelled after actual vehicles’ performance, look, sound, and handling, automotive brands have understandably requested that the games refrain from showing their vehicles’ crash damage.
The deals that brands strike with major video game publishers don’t just have the power to boost or tarnish their reputation, but they can also translate to a significant amount of real-world outcomes and financial gain. The in-game advertising platform Bidstack has helped mega publishers like Sega sell native in-stadium ads in game franchises such as EA Sports’ FIFA series, a deal that has been pursued by the likes of the Vanarama National League, a soccer league in England. Inclusion in FIFA 2020 would be a game-changer for the league:
“On the off-chance EA decided to include their modest but well-attended stadiums,” observes John McCarthy in The Drum, “those clubs would draw revenue from in-game dynamic advertising. In turn, the clubs (and their partners) would greatly increase their digital and social footprints, attracting commercial opportunities and supporters.”
5. Game as Stage for Real-Time Product Placement
One of the most cutting-edge ways that video game creators and advertisers have joined forces nowadays is by using the game as the platform through which live ads are delivered.
The most resounding examples of this have taken place within Fortnite, which boasts 350 million global players as of spring 2020. Instead of weaving ads into the code of the game, or closing a deal with a medley of brands in order to fund the development of the game, Fortnite has learned to deploy its platform as a stage for high-profile ads to be served to players in real-time—and these ads aren’t just branded appearances, but groundbreaking cultural events in their own right.
For one, the official trailer for the highly anticipated 2020 film Tenet didn’t premiere during the commercial break at a buzzy awards show, or even on YouTube for all to see, but over Fortnite. The trailer played several times in the game, allowing players to lay eyes on it before the non-Fortnite-playing general population.
Other milestone events that used Fortnite and its built-in audience as a massive, globe-spanning stage include live virtual concerts performed by DJ Marshmello and Travis Scott, the latter of which 12 million players were reported to have tuned in for.
The Benefits of Advertising via Product Placement in Video Games
As we previously explored, the low television viewership of the Gen Z and millennial audiences is but one of the many reasons that product placement in video games may be the strongest way to target your demographic head-on. Here are a number of the other benefits of in-game advertising:
When audiences are served a traditional TV commercial, advertisers have no clear way of determining whether the viewers on the other side of the television actually paid close attention to that ad, or whether they even fall within their target audience. Product placement in video games, however, can offer a level of insights that TV could only dream of.
“Gaming offers an immersive, action-packed environment that commands a player’s full attention as their eyes dart around the screen, taking in every bit of information,” writes Itamar Benedy, chief executive officer of Anzu.
“This is where ad viewability can’t be beaten; viewability is 100% trackable,” he continues. “Brands can get granular data on ad viewability, down to how long ads were viewed and whether they were viewed head-on, from the side, or only partially seen due to an obstructing object.”
The ability to access this first-party data will help advertisers determine what portion of their efforts are being viewed and for how long, allowing them to make more informed decisions about their video game ad spend.
Hyper-targeted, real-time campaigns
While ad appearances used to be written into the code of an offline game, a large portion of games are now played online in real-time, which has enabled game creators to serve its players customized advertisements based on their geographic location, age, gender, or interests. “For example, just before dinner time,” Benedy demonstrates, “McDonald’s could place their logo on a team’s jersey and subconsciously influence a player’s meal choice.”
Although personalized ads possess a lot of appeal for advertisers, gamers may equally appreciate them, since the product placement that appears while they’re playing will be more relevant to their life and desires.
Higher brand exposure times
If the branded games of the ‘90s got one thing right, it’s that users spend a great deal of time—hours, months, and even years—playing the same game, which can’t always be said for a movie that a viewer watches once or twice, or a brief commercial that precedes a YouTube video.
One way that marketers measure brand recall is by following the rule of seven, “which asserts that about seven impressions need to be made on a member of the brand’s target market before the consumer decides to buy from the brand.” Because gamers spend longer times in-game, they’re naturally more likely to be served in-game ads at a higher frequency, enhancing brand recall.
Product placement in video games also routinely comes in the form of animated logos, which studies show have typically “elicited a higher recall than static logos.”
Product Placement in Video Games Is Here to Stay
As you can see, there are a variety of ways that the worlds of advertising and gaming have merged over the years: from games that were only brought into existence to boost a brand message, to peripheral product appearances, to products used as tools within gameplay, to products that are the central component of the game itself.
Nowadays, some popular online games attract more users than most social media platforms or streaming services, so advertisers are using them as the channels through which they serve hyper-targeted, programmatic campaigns, as well as the stage for massive cultural events.
Who knows what level product placement in video games will evolve to next? Either way, as gaming becomes more inextricable from our everyday lives, it’s safe to say that various forms of branding will become more ingrained in the fictional worlds we immerse ourselves in when we game.
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