Product misplacement7 minute read

How advertising has affected video games, sometimes without us even knowing

Advertising is a marketing tactic involving payment to promote a product, service, or cause by companies with enough financial clout to do so. The goal of advertising is to reach people that are most likely to be willing to pay for a company’s products or services and ultimately entice them to buy it.

We see advertisements everywhere – on posters and billboards, on the sides of buses, in the breaks of television programming and as part of the opening of movies at the cinema. We’re requested to “buy this”, “drink this”, “eat this”, “upgrade to this”, “watch this”, and “gamble here”. And it works.

If you’ve ever seen the John Carpenter movie They Live, you understand the message of consumerism. We’ve all seen something advertised and thought that it looks enticing. It could be the new triple-decker cheeseburger from your favourite fast-food franchise or it could be the latest big summer blockbuster released on home media.

And then, there’s the advertising that you don’t consciously notice but are fed subliminally, such as product placement in films and television shows. Your favourite character could be wearing the latest high-end sports trainers that coincidentally are being released that week or a song could be playing as part of a movie montage that makes you want to buy that bands latest album or single. You’re not being asked to buy these, but being slightly nudged and manipulated into considering it.

One of us, one of us

The 1978 hit, Adventureland

Basically advertising is everywhere, and yes this equates to video games too. Advertisements in video games are not a new concept either. The earliest known “In Game Advertising” was within 1978’s Adventureland, which inserted a self-promotional advertisement for its next game, Pirate Adventure. Where this advertisement was self-promotional, it opened the door for what is now a booming sub-industry of advertising, which is projected to be worth a staggering $56 billion by 2024.

IGA’s can be integrated into the game either through being displayed in the background, such as an in-game billboard or a commercial during a loading screen, or integrated within the game. In-game integration is used so that the advertised product is necessary to complete part of the game or is featured prominently within cut-scenes.

Sports games will have the names of advertisers on boards around the virtual playing area, adding to the realism you’d see on game-day on TV. Your character mid cut-scene may be sat at a bar drinking your beer of choice (or future beer of choice). You might be driving around a racing circuit in a multitude of cars, all created by well known manufacturers.

This subliminal advertising is part of the course of the world you are playing in. In-game you’re simulating real life so why wouldn’t you have real life products in this virtual location? There are also some games that bypass the subliminal and go straight to the sponsorship. Sometimes the veracity of this is to a point that the game is an advert itself.

The coolest Spot that ever was

Cool Spot, an early 90’s game where a sentient red bottle cap traverses different levels to rescue his kind from cages at the end of each level. In order to do so, the player is required to collect a certain number of spots that changes (usually increases) as the game progresses. In the NTSC release 7-Up, a popular fizzy drink, is heavily promoted throughout the game. This is because Cool Spot himself is the mascot for the company in the US region.

In the PAL version, the label from the 7-Up bottle Spot surfs on in the intro is removed, since another company mascot Fido Dido was already advertising 7-Up in the European region. So this game has the distinction of being made to be an advertisement for a company that censored itself from it’s own product because of an alternative mascot. #YouStillWithMe?

There are also games that are made more blatantly as specific adverts for products. Whereas Cool Spot is less protractive in it’s reach as product placement, there could be nothing more blatant in a shameless self promotional than the PlayStation game Pepsiman. Or as the game screams at you…”PEPSIMAAAAAAAAN!”

Third-quenching gameplay?

Pepsiman is based on Pepsi’s mascot of the same name, which was created for Pepsi’s Japanese market. The character’s backstory says he used to be a scientist who turned into a superhero after coming into contact with “Holy Pepsi“. Being Japan it’s as out there and wacky an experience of character development as you’d expect.

The game is a simplistic budgetary title with gameplay in the similar vein as Crash Bandicoot, but much less responsive in it’s control scheme. The game is played from a third-person perspective, with Pepsiman automatically running forwards through the stage with the player aiming to dodge obstacles, such as cars, cranes, and people, as well as Pepsi-branded obstacles, including a Pepsi truck. The aim of the game is to get to the end of the stage and help quench people’s thirst by giving them Pepsi to drink.

The game is very much the definition of style over substance as it’s more about promoting a soft drink you could buy quite a few cans of instead of buying this game and it had a Japanese-only release. The reason was mainly down to licensing issues after an American publisher tried to gain the rights to publish within their market.

Nethertheless, this is just one of a multitude of games basing it’s existence simply due to promoting a product. Global Gladiators, a run ‘n gun 2D side-scrolling game with the McDonald’s logo slapped all over it was released in 1992 for the Mega Drive / Genesis. There were also a bundle of Burger King-inspired games that were released in America for the Xbox 360 (possibly looking back at what McDonald’s did years prior). The Burger King games were generally promotional giveaways as part of buying a Value Meal at said restaurant. Chex Quest is a DOOM-style game that was sold in collaboration with the breakfast cereal Chex, and it is a game that has a surprising cult following for actually being quite a decent game.

The times, they are a-changin’

With video games now being the most profitable form of media in the world, I can see why advertisers would want to engage in promotion, but you could also say video games don’t need it. When you’re playing a board game, you don’t stop midway through an watch an advert, so why should electronic gaming be as such?

We already have adverts on free-to-play mobile games put in to cover the costs of free entertainment for the consumer, who’s to say this won’t happen to future games on bigger platforms? Imagine playing an AAA title such as the upcoming Resident Evil 8 and there’s an option to download the game cheaper. The only caveat is this version comes complete with adverts that stop you mid gameplay to promote the latest offerings on deals of bikes from Halfords? Or the latest McChicken Sandwich meal deal? It’s a worry that could become a possibility due to corporate greed. They already use games as a tool for advertisments and times do change.

The pandemic era has changed things exponentially in terms of profitable output. Maybe now we are seeing the start of an autoadvertised society expectant of such? Maybe this article will be ironically advertised in itself across social media. Maybe we’re already at that point.

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