Questioning Heavy-Handed In-Game Ad Campaigns

Since my last post on the recent Subway ad campaign in Counter-Strike, I’ve been trying to think of ways to help non-gamers understand the problem with such heavy-handed marketing tactics. So I’ve designed the following thought experiment. First: check out this screenshot of the Subway campaign (provided by Joystiq):
Two things you can’t help but notice immediately: there are a ton of ads in a single location, and no effort has been made to realistically blend the ads into the surrounding environment. It doesn’t get more blunt than this.

Some marketing professionals would argue that there’s nothing wrong with this campaign. They might say that conscious rejection of the ads will be outweighed by subconscious assimilation of the brand. They might even dismiss conscious rejection entirely. There is some research that supports these assertions, though I don’t know of any study focused on an equally blunt campaign in a AAA game.

Regardless, now check out this image of Disney World that I have heavily photoshopped:

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Can you imagine how people would feel if, after paying $50 per person, they walked into Disney World (expecting an escape, magic, etc), and they saw this? What if the rides themselves were filled with poorly-placed ads? Can you imagine Subway blanketing the Haunted Mansion in the same way it blanketed Counter-Strike? They’d never do it (and Disney would never permit it).

If you were a visitor to this theoretical Disney World, do you think your conscious frustration with Subway (and Disney) would fade quickly? Speaking only for myself: I’d be irate, and I wouldn’t forget it soon.

There’s an extra level of thoughtfulness that must be employed when advertising in any medium that people particularly care about — and games (like Disney World) are at the top of the heap.

Update (1/24): according to Jennie at Joystiq, the CS screenshot she posted was actually modified. Jennie added that the actual in-game Subway campaign was slightly less “absurd”, but still “badly done for the CS setting”.

233 Responses to Questioning Heavy-Handed In-Game Ad Campaigns

  1. There’s also the concern that in-game environments tend to be more limited than out-of-game environments, especially in multiplayer FPS games where you spend most of your time running around the same areas of a map again. And again. And again.

    The psychological studies which have dealt with the subliminal priming effect suggest that it works because people only have so much energy with which they can resist being influenced, and that they tend to use it to resist the bluntest and most obvious attempts to persuade them. Without even getting into the whole question of consumer ill-will, I think it’s clear that the ad-infested counterstrike level shown above is pretty bloody obvious in its attempts to persuade and influence.

  2. I don’t think that’s an in-game screenshot.

    If you look at the Ars Technica article you linked to the other day, they have a very different screenshot.

    Theirs looks much more unobtrusive, and it makes more sense because the ad campaign was for a $2.99 subway special, not Subway in general.

    Your point is made, though. People buy games to get away from the real world.

    Also, BTW, the comments page is completely hosed in FF 1.5, and extremely difficult to use in IE. I apologize for any typos — I can’t see half of this textarea.

  3. It’s also possible that Dave’s graphics card can’t handle modern lighting effects…

  4. Oops, it’s from Joystiq. Oh well…

  5. Yup — looks like the guys at Joystiq did a bit of photoshopping of their own, but didn’t say so in their post. I got in touch with someone who said the screenshot is “similar” to what appeared in the game. I’ll have to track down more shots.

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