Life is a video game

The words of gaming and reality collide as brands find new ways of targeting young audiences

by Mark Tungate , MAYDREAM

Advertisers are keen to reach young people in one of the places they live: the lurid and exciting confines of video games. In-game advertising is the obvious approach, but recent innovations blur the borders between gaming and the real world.

A couple of initiatives involve brands adopting video game characters as ambassadors. For example, Coca Cola and EA Sports announced a deal with virtual soccer player Alex Hunter, the star of the FIFA game series “The Journey”. During the game, the animated Hunter will be seen drinking Coke Zero. 

This actually makes good sense: a video game character is unlikely to be embroiled in scandals involving sex, drugs, offensive language or other brand-damaging behaviour.

Meanwhile, flipping the idea on its head somewhat, Angry Birds creator Rovio recently became a sponsor of the UK soccer team Everton, placing a prominent logo on players’ sleeves. Fans were a little…well, angry about the idea, according to the British press. But Rovio had a lot of fun with it, creating a short film featuring its character Red. 

Effacing the borders between games and reality even further, a collaboration between Nissan and the PlayStation game series Gran Tourismo let one lucky gamer drive a full-size race car using a PS4 joystick. 

In fact he’s not just any player: Jann Mardenborough is a racing driver in real life too. To add a final flourish to the story, he was discovered through the GT Academy, which seeks to turn amateur gamers into professional racing drivers. Nissan celebrated 20 years of the partnership by launching the Gran Tourismo sport racing car featured in the film.

The idea of remote control reminded us of this stunt from a couple of years ago, when McCann Worldgroup helped Microsoft launch its Mixer game streaming platform by allowing gamers to choreograph a giant firework display. As Ad Age explained at the time, online viewers chose “the colors, shapes, and sizes of fireworks via a panel of interactive buttons. As the community members spent Sparks (Mixer's interactive currency), their names and Spark contribution appeared in a real-time ticker to show that the community collectively launched the fireworks.

It may be something of a cliché, but few things go as well together as fast food and gaming. This fact has not escaped brands, of course. Burger King, via Lola MullenLowe in Madrid, allowed gamers to partner with e-sports stars who could take over play while they ordered a burger. 

Meanwhile, over the past three years or so Domino’s has built deep engagement via a series of initiatives designed to make it “the” snack choice of gamers. 

The concept of the “branded game” is familiar by now, but we were intrigued by this version from Saatchi & Saatchi Warsaw and the Alivia Foundation. It encourages players to help real cancer patients by killing “cancer bugs” on screen. The game is free to play, but topping up your ammunition sends a micro-payment to the charity. 

Finally, as you can see from this TV spot for utilities provider EDF by Havas Paris, the tropes of video games are becoming a familiar feature of conventional advertising. Presumably so that young people will look up from their games and take notice. But don’t count on it.