Grand Theft Advertising: Revisiting In-Game Ads

We turn our attention now to the summer’s single biggest media event. Not the finale of “American Idol,” the return of “Indiana Jones,” or the dusting off of some ’70s rock band for an ill-advised tour. The most significant media event of the summer (which of course, hasn’t even really started yet) was last month’s release of “Grand Theft Auto IV,” the latest edition of the top-selling video game.

“GTA IV” is well on its way to being a watershed event in the video game industry’s evolution. The site Metacritic, which combines several reviews into a single score, gives the game a stunning 99 out a possible 100. Visitors to the site are slightly harsher, giving it an 8.3 out of 10, but that’s still way up there. Similarly, the game has received (as of this writing) 48 reviews on Amazon, with an average of 4.5 (out of 5 stars). Also, the Xbox 360 version of the game is sitting at number two in Amazon’s list of overall best sellers.

Clearly, this is one hot video game. But is it really just a video game? The genre itself has slowly evolved over the years, forcing media watchers to pay closer attention to this pastime. This edition of “GTA” pushes the boundaries of media way beyond expectations, in terms of overall quality of game play, as well as the interesting and compelling world the creators built. More than anything else, what “GTA” says is that video games are the single hottest spot in the media solar system for innovation and experimentation.

And it’s time for advertisers to get serious about them.

Depth of Worlds

The most interesting wrinkle to the new “GTA” is the depth of the world that has been created as the context for the action. OK, there are some seedy parts of this world, but that’s beside the point. What’s important is the feeling that you can explore the world indefinitely, finding all kinds of wonderful things. We’ve already seen an Apple spoof housed inside one of the world’s corners.

Marketers have been lured in by the siren song of unlimited worlds to explore. In agencies across the country, right at this minute, legions of new business people are deleting Second Life slides from pitch decks.

The world of games, of course, is different. Marketers, it seems, are just beginning to get their arms around this world (and, naturally, it’s changing just as they are doing so). A lot of the focus on in-game advertising has been on placement: making sure your ads are in the game. Microsoft’s purchase of Massive two years ago paved this road. Massive was (is) a pioneer in the ability to place ads directly into games.

But “GTA” opens up a new crack in the plan. This game is pushing the media to a new level, both in terms of execution and audience. Lots of people who previously didn’t play games will be attracted to the buzz around “GTA,” and that may spark their interest in more gaming.

These new gamers are going to have seriously different expectations of what they could/should expect from in-game advertising. “GTA” may not offer the golden ticket of crossover audiences (e.g., teen girls may not flock to “GTA”), but the audience of people who might game will very likely turn into an audience who has gamed.

What the Marketer Should Do

Video games have been a media, in and of themselves, for a long time, and that means marketers should consider them as advertising options. There are a few ways that we should revisit, reconsider, and rethink the way we approach this medium:

Find the Right Game. “GTA” isn’t for everyone. Some elements are appropriate only for adults, and that’s fine. There are movies, songs, and TV shows that are only appropriate for certain demographics. Know the game you’re considering. Don’t be scared of the presence of salacious content. Just be aware of it and decide if it’s right for your brand.

Live in the World. “GTA” offers a deep world to advertisers, and this is a great opportunity for advertisers. There is the opportunity, with this depth, to explore the precise in-game media moments where an ad may work just right. Perhaps you want to only be in a certain kind of location. Or, you may want to have an ad triggered based on a behavior. Your message could appear just when the character/player has accomplished a major task and feeling especially good.

Experiment and Push. Video game review site IGN gave GTA its top score 10 of 10. Interestingly, though, this wasn’t because the game is perfect, but rather because the game “is pushing boundaries, expanding a genre, and doing many things to a level so far above and beyond.” This means that it’s open season for innovation in the video game market (not that it wasn’t already), and advertisers should approach game publishers early and often, with wild ideas, and try to be a part of that push for innovation.

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