the beat of digital culture
home | archives | about us | feedback

Daily Relay

tracking digital culture and emerging technologies

Support Mindjack

special sections:
Video Games


Mindjack Release
Sign up to receive details of new issue

by Tony Walsh
Edited by Liam O'Donnell

August 31 , 2004 | What do you get when you cross the world's most measurable medium with the world's most immersive medium? Video games peppered with Internet-style banner-ads. This new method of marketing allows measurable demographic and exposure data to be collected from the elusive online gaming community, targeting dynamically-downloaded advertisements at specific demographics. The promise of a new revenue stream is obviously attractive to advertisers and game publishers, but will the idea win over gamers?

Print has been used for the purpose of reaching consumers for hundreds of years. Primitive advertisements for goods and services gained popularity with the development of printing tools, but only began reaching the masses when introduced to early periodicals. In the 20th century, we saw print ads increase in scope and quantity, often overshadowing the content of the magazines and newspapers that carried them. Today, "advertorials" and other integrated sell-messages masquerade as reading material. Broadcast media were quickly and similarly exploited, from early sponsorships and interstitial commercials to brands guest-starring on popular shows. In 1998, J. Crew outfitted the cast of teen TV success Dawson's Creek. The stars of the show were also featured in two of J.Crew's catalogues that year, creating a synergistic tie-in between television and apparel products. Movies have increasingly been similarly used as a venue for product-placement such as soft drinks, clothes, and cars. Audi vehicles have played the vehicular lead in over five motion pictures between 1998 (Ronin) and 2004 (I, Robot). Accessible American hamburgers play the starring role in the summer 2004 release of Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. The film, arguably an 88-minute commercial for the fast food chain, might only be a taste of things to come.

Analog media aside, the fastest-growing and most pervasive advertisements are found on the World Wide Web. Banner ads, pop-up ads, pop-under ads, so-called "rich media" ads, and advertorial content have grown explosively since their introduction. Internet advertisements represent a huge leap in marketing technology. Unlike analog media, the reach of internet ads can be absolutely precise, targeting consumers demographically, reporting back statistics on the frequency and duration of exposure. It follows that this dynamic, digital-exclusive technology would find its way to online-game space.

Manhattan-based Massive Incorporated, partnered with the Internet Advertising Bureau, will soon be bringing internet-style ads to games by publishers Atari and Ubisoft. Massive's system facilitates timed ad-campaigns aimed at specific segments of the gamer population-a game player might not see the same ad twice in one week, for example. Massive is not alone in mining gamers for measurable marketing data—Nielsen Entertainment Media has sided with publisher Activision in bringing ad-tracking to games with a system superior to the Neilson "People Meter" currently used to gather television viewing habits.

Massive Incorporated polled 200 gamers in February 2004 and found that over 70 percent "…indicated that incorporating ads in video games would greatly enhance the quality and realism of the gaming experience provided they were done well." A separate Neilsen survey found 70 percent of respondents would like to see real products in their virtual environments, according to an August 2004 MSNBC story on advertising in games.

Fictional Products Advertised in Doom 3
Fictional Products Advertised in Doom 3

Games such as Enter the Matrix and Disney's Extreme Skate Adventure, which both take place in contemporary urban environments, may be more realistic with the inclusion of a Powerade drink vending machine or a McDonald's restaurant. Some games can be cheapened by excessive product placements, such as the inclusion of the Red Bull real-world energy drink as both product-placement and plot point in Judge Dredd: Dredd Vs. Death (Vivendi Universal Interactive Publishing, 2003). Other games may be better off featuring make-believe products, where undertones of commerciality are replaced by story expansion or whimsy. Doom 3, for example, developed by id Software and published by Activision, features numerous brands. All are fictional. "If you look at some of the [in-game] magazines, and even the soda machines, there's always a little tongue-in-cheek humor or even inside jokes incorporated," says Marty Stratton, Director of Business Development at id Software. "We all got a good laugh the first time our artist Andy Chang included the 'Guns and Nachos' magazine in the game. It's a great cover--tasty and deadly….I think the players appreciate finding the little funny or clever things that are incorporated into the materials like this." Although Doom 3 has many places where real-world products could have been featured, Stratton says id Software wasn't actively looking for marketing hooks. "Product placement is becoming more popular in some of the sports and racing games, but hasn't really found its way into too many action shooters."

Few games genres are by nature an appropriate venue for banner-style marketing. Sports-related titles are probably the most-easily and realistically-exploited genres, since modern sports are already replete with logos and billboards. Another reasonable environment is the contemporary urban setting. But sports and urban settings make up only a fraction of the gaming spectrum. The remainder chiefly includes fantasy, science fiction, humour and horror. Even if 70 percent of players feel that in-game ads increase their feeling of immersion, only a small portion of games can credibly support banner-style marketing. If you imagine half of game titles are sports or urban-themed titles, Massive's and Neilson's surveys don't look quite so promising. Suddenly we're down to 35 percent of gamers pleased with in-game ads based on appropriateness.

Gamers are more savvy than other audiences, having an advanced vocabulary in interactive media. Many are well aware of when they're being sold out. "Ads aren't something I believe can enhance gaming to any significant degree," says Adrian Crook, a 29-year-old Vancouverite working as a Producer at developer Relic Entertainment. "I can see a dynamically updated ad in a PC or console game being at least a novelty and at best a game play mechanic of some sort." Crook, who is currently working on a next-generation console title, has previously held producer positions at ad-agency MacLaren McCann and developer/publisher Electronic Arts Canada. "When I was at MacLaren," recalls Crook, "we were simply designing ads that we thought would annoy the least. In-game ads seem to bring very little to the table besides the tangential validation a brand name brings to a new videogame property, i.e. 'hmm... they managed to get Mountain Dew involved...not bad.'" Other game enthusiasts are dead set against the plans of companies like Massive. "I will not pay for a game that tracks me or downloads ads," wrote user Stretch0611 in an online discussion about in-game advertising. "I am not even sure I would play it for free under those conditions…. It may be a game publisher/ad-exec's dream, but it is not a player's dream."

Game advertisers would be foolish not to take a cue from internet marketing, online game marketing's closest relative. Web surfers don't generally enjoy banner ads—the slew of ad-censoring software, including browsers with built-in blocking (such as Firefox and an upcoming version of Internet Explorer) is testament to this. Many web sites offer premium services that eliminate banners from their pages, or offer free content to those who will sit through a timed advertisement. raised the topic among its readers. "I have no problem with appropriate product placement," wrote a gamer nicknamed Seven in an online discussion about in-game ads at "If it's a more intrusive 'ad', as opposed to simple texture on billboard, is not actually adding to my gaming experience, and I'm paying three times the cost of a DVD for the game, then I'm definitely against it. If it means significantly cheaper quality games, that's fine, as long as you can pay more for an ad free version." Adrian Crook doesn't think publishers will share their increased revenue with consumers by lowering prices. "Games won't get cheaper if ad revenues are added to a publisher's bottom line," says Crook. "Does your cable TV bill get cheaper in January when CBS is able to charge a million dollars for a 30-second Superbowl spot? Nope. That's called growing your profit margin. There's no way in hell that money will find its way back to the consumer."

In-game ads featuring all the bells and whistles of their web-based counterparts offer an unprecedented opportunity for the game and advertising industry to commoditize online game-players. With capable and established firms providing enabling technology, game publishers will soon reap the benefits of even greater profits, at least in the short term. The benefits of dynamic in-game advertising are negligible at best, offering a small percentage of gamers a heightened sense of immersion when executed appropriately. History has shown us that once ads get a foothold in a medium, they not only persist, they pervade and dominate. Once all available appropriate uses are depleted, advertising encroaches increasingly on the integrity of the medium until the art form is eclipsed. Today, Ratchet and Clank, tomorrow Ratchet and Clank Go to White Castle.

Tony Walsh is a Toronto-based freelance Jack of all Trades, practitioner of the Arts, avid gamer and renegade digital anthropologist. He keeps a near-daily journal at but lives at

advertise here
email for info


home | about us | feedback