We’re All Becoming Too Commercial

Think about a typical Marks & Spencer advert. You know – all that pseudo-sexually explicit food jargon designed to make you salivate like one of Pavlov’s pathetic hounds. Think about what you feel when you hear some assumedly attractive middle-aged ‘yummy-mummy’ telling you about ‘traditionally cured Gravlax salmon with creamy mustard and dill sauce.’ It’s a nice feeling, isn’t it? One that serves to stimulate the taste-buds through the precise application of positive emotive language. Truth is, the people at M&S are basically hypnotizing you – using certain words and images we associate with pleasure to sell their top-of-the-range produce. They’re exploiting you, and you adhere to their brainwashing because you don’t know any better.

Why, then, do the promoters behind just about any videogame ever not follow this lead? Why does almost every single advert promoting a game have to contain either a jeep jumping off a hill, gun-porn, someone being hit round the head or a man wearing a suit walking away from an explosion in slow-motion? Why is there such a chronic lack of originality in TV spots for games?

I guess it’s a question of pragmatism – after all, there is a marked difference between your average teenage gamer and your average middle-class house-chef. Advertising is a matter of maximizing profit and minimizing expenditure, and the quickest and easiest way to access profit is to convince people to buy as much of your product as possible. Games adverts do this by (supposedly) giving you a glimpse of what you want from a game. Take, for example, the newest Modern Warfare 3 trailer; it gives you four easily identifiable cities from around the world and shows them in varying degrees of invasion. Straight away, you’ve piqued the interest of people in Germany, England, France and America. And they aren’t just gamers, either; you see your Capital City being bombarded with ballistic missiles and you don’t just sit back and ignore it – even if you couldn’t give a toss of your Wii remote about Modern Warfare, you’re going to be curious. Straight away, Activision have increased their audience to the average prime-time TV viewer.

The most irritating part of the “oh look, an explosion!” games campaign that’s been going on for the last 10 years is the mundanely repetitive nature of it all. Modern Warfare 3 is the exception that proves the rule – a lot of the time, I find myself zoning out of adverts that just go “Look at this! What is it? It’s noisy, it’s cool and it validates your masculinity! Look at the screen! Go on! Do it! Now!” That sort of thing just doesn’t appeal to me. Take the campaign Homefront ran, for example. Forgiving it for the Multiplayer lobby issue, it wasn’t such a bad game. For me, at least, the story was enough to keep me entertained for about ten or so hours. And that was one of its main selling points – occupied America and the realistic, speculative narrative that ran through it. Now, from an advertiser’s perspective, I’d say that was a unique selling-point; if I was to market that game, I’d big that up. Throw in the odd mention that the writer of Red Dawn’s behind it (hugely successful movie, no less) and you think you’d have a recipe for success.

Except no. Instead, THQ and Kaos decide to focus on – quelle surprise – a man with a rocket launcher and generic POWs with guns held to their blindfolded heads. Well done – you’ve written off something that could arguably have boosted the industry’s merit by trying to appeal to all the action-starved teenagers across the land. It’s not just the FPS genre that suffers from this generic labelling, either; you’ll often find modern platformers will only show lovely little clips, only to realize that it isn’t “Actual Gameplay Footage”. Why? Why advertise something if you’re not even going to actually show it? Super Mario Galaxy just had a little skit of Mario flying around a planet whilst some smug voice-over told you to buy it because it’d be fun. If it’s that much fun, then show us the gameplay.

Whilst I appreciate there’s a difficult balance to strike in terms of maximizing profit and effectively promoting the game, surely a few companies can sacrifice potential sales in order to boost the industry’s credibility a little? I’m not a market strategist (clearly), but I guess you could argue that’d be beneficial in the long run. Chances are, if you’ve got a triple-A title set for launch in the “Holiday Season” (or 4th Quarter, or whatever), then you’re going to rake in the cash anyway, irrespective of how many adverts you flog to ITV. During this time, the RRP of your standard console game gets bumped by about £10 so retailers can claim “Special Offer!” and sell it you for what a normal game would fetch on standard release day (if you don’t believe this, wait until October/November time and see for yourself). This, surely, gives whoever’s in charge of marketing the leeway to be a bit more adventurous with their advertising strategy.

Take, for example, Portal 2. I’ve got a fair few friends around that are, at best, casual gamers. Roughly 80% of them had never played (let alone heard of) the first Portal game. When I quizzed them about the Orange Box, they thought I was on about some sort of mobile-phone offer. Yet, purely down to the numerous TV outings the “two, adorable robots” had, the vast majority of my casual gamer friends bought the game as soon as they knew where they could get it. This semi-viral campaign was helped by the YouTube banner it had installed on the site for a good few days. At Universities, generally, literally no-one has a TV that they use to watch TV on (mainly due to the license fee). Instead, their devices are used for DVDs and gaming. As such, YouTube is a far more lucrative place for advertisers if they want to reach a mature teenage audience. Many of my peers saw Portal 2 advertised here – in its cross-panel interactive format – and it furthered their respect for the game.

So, where Valve was smart, there’s obviously going to be a company that got it completely wrong, right? Right. Surprisingly, it was EA – their strategy for the late stages of the Dead Space 2 campaign featured the cringe-worthy 90’s tactic of “Your mother hates Dead Space 2”, which basically tried to appeal to a teen audience (even though the game was rated 18+) by running a series of viral ads showing women-of-a-certain-age reacting squeamishly and disgustedly to a few clips from Dead Space 2. I think that did more harm than good.

As I, and many other writers on this site and a plethora of others, have said before, the games industry is maturing. It’s very quickly coming into an age of its own; it’s one of the few industries that, at the moment, is returning an increasing profit, year upon year. Think about that – even in these times of economic depression (that’s become such a cliché now), the gaming industry continues to deliver, even though it is definitely categorised in the “luxury” department of retail. Surely that should be a heads-up to the increasing number of publishers, developers, producers and marketing execs that are finding themselves faced with trying to win over an ever-increasing number of consumers.

The simple message is you don’t need to! It’s bad enough that smaller publishers already plan their release dates around bigger company’s launch days (Bayonetta, for example, was delayed from December until February so that it didn’t clash with one of the CoD games). If everyone begins to copy each other’s advertising ideas, then our beautiful industry will be reduced to some machismo Hollywood ripoff, where everything looks the same and just has half-naked women parading around with topless, muscled men wielding guns and driving muscle cars and…


Oh dear.

Last five articles by Dom



  1. Edward Edward says:

    This, dear god this.
    I long stopped watching regular TV, but whatever adverts I see are just frigging terrible.
    For me, the worst offenders are the Nintendo adverts. The games are fun, because I’ve played them myself, but all the adverts are either celebrities endorsing the product, a bunch of people sitting around having fake fun, or both. Yet, every time I hear that “d-ding” sound those adverts make, I still can’t help but walk in and check it out, because they’re somehow able to convert those adverts to some serious “cha-ching” to the tune of “seriously how does Nintendo make all this money with adverts like this?”

    Good job, Dom!
    (Cave Johnson, we’re done here)

  2. Jo Jo says:

    Games advertising has annoyed my for quite a while. I must admit that, occasionally, I fall victim to the SHINYSPLOSIONS adverts, especially for Modern Warfare, but there is an awful lot wrong with the way games are advertised and marketed; especially the way that gaming is gendered. This is the worst, in my opinion, attempt at advertising gaming. http://www.joystiq.com/2009/08/04/omg-lilac-psp-sony-says-girlz-play-too/

    When they tried to market the PSP to the female gamer, to me, they took it too far. I found this campaign to be slightly *annoying*. The games industry does seem to pander to the stereotypes and it really is a shame. I’m not a feminist, and I’m not demanding that games must be gender neutral, but I do find the occasional campaign a little ridiculous.

  3. Chris Toffer says:

    It’s all about the Legend Of Zelda game adverts…(not the Japanese ones.. Christ they were bad)

    Good article dude!

  4. Richie Rich says:

    That’s a well-written, very thoughtful article. Good work that man.

  5. Samuel Samuel says:

    Enjoyed this. Raises a lot of good points.

    The funny thing is, the only games adverts that DO show actual in-game footage tend to be Nintendo DS/3DS game adverts. And it looks terrible! Small handheld screen visuals blown up to 28″ (in my case at least) HDTV size? What the bloody hell were they thinking? I nearly didn’t buy Pokemon Black/White because the games looked so awful on the TV spots. On the handheld it’s some of the best visuals on the system though, ironically.

    Evolution will come eventually. It’s a bit like film trailers, you can instantly tell how old a film trailer is because they’re all the same depending on when the film was released. Don’t believe me? Every film in the late 70s and 80s had the same deep-voiced guy doing a voice over. They were all basically the same. “In a place, where things should be good, bad things happen, and it’s down to one man to stop it.” Didn’t matter if it was Die Hard or Star Trek the Motion Picture, the trailers are that alike you’d be hard pressed to tell they were entirely different kinds of film. Marketing execs are lazy, they see one company do something innovative that works and they flog it to death because it’s a dead cert.

    Of course, when that evolution does arrive, it won’t be long before everyone does the new thing and it becomes the new cliché.

Leave a Comment