Intel, McDonald’s Get In the Game Ads

In a development that brings together the trends toward “advergaming” and product placement, Intel and McDonald’s have signed on to have their products and brands integrated into the debut version of Electronic Arts’ The Sims Online.

Under the terms of the deals, which were described as being worth multi-millions of dollars when combined, Intel-based computers and McDonald’s restaurants will have roles within the game play. The Sims PC game — on which the online version is based — is an outgrowth of the classic Sim City series originally released in the early ’90s. It allows gamers to build a simulated society, and was the best selling PC game of both 2000 and 2001, according to Redwood City, Calif.-based Electronic Arts .

Now Electronic Arts is debuting an online version of the game, which will allow thousands of players to collaborate in creating a virtual world. Of course, no virtual world these days is complete without product placement, a trend spurred by the fact that the young people that compose the gaming audience is traditionally a difficult one for marketers to reach.

“The demographics and culture of gaming are driving the interest by sponsors. Games are to young people what television was to previous generations — they provide a cultural touchstone that fills their free time and provides points of reference for friendships,” said Erick Hachenburg, general manager of EA.com. “Matching Intel and McDonald’s with The Sims Online signals a watershed for in-game advertising. It marks the first time players can interact with everyday brands and products in a virtual world.”

Intel Pentium 4 processor-based computers will be built into the game in such a way so that players can choose from a selection of low- to high-end virtual computers for their Sim. When players increase their use of their Pentium 4 virtual computers, they amass greater “logic” and “fun” points than they would if they were using the lower end generic PCs. The virtual computers will also play the five-note “Intel Inside” brand tone, and will display the Intel brand on screen.

“We will be front and center with mass market consumers who purchase and use PCs for entertainment purposes,” said Ann Lewnes, vice president of the Intel Inside program and co-marketing for Santa Clara, Calif.-based Intel. “This is the closest you can get to touching your primary demographic — every day.”

Oak Brook, Ill.-based McDonald’s, which is currently trying to revive its brand through an overhaul of its menu and the remodeling of its brick and mortar outlets, will allow Sims Online players to operate a McDonald’s kiosk and earn virtual money — “Simoleons” — for operating the virtual business. When Sims eat at McDonalds, it will earn them credits in both the “hunger” and “fun” categories.

“This is an emerging entertainment area for teens and young adults and will continue to keep McDonald’s at the forefront with this audience,” said Peter Sterling, vice president of marketing at McDonald’s USA. “Partnering with The Sims franchise of games gives us the ability to provide fun and entertainment to our customers in an environment that allows them to experience our brand in a virtual world.”

Although Electronic Arts has incorporated sponsor messaging into games before — Coca Cola, Lee Jeans, and General Mills, among others, have been advertisers — Electronic Arts vice president of advertising sales Beth Larson says the new deal takes things a step further.

“Nothing in the past has been like the Sims. The game play is about finding objects and interacting with objects to propel game play,” she said. “The interactivity of the game allows advertisers to not just get that exposure but also to get that interaction.”

While the move toward virtual product placement is obviously driven in part by the technological ability to create games in which characters can meaningfully interact with brands, it’s also driven by the growth in technology that makes it more difficult for advertisers to reach consumers. The advent of personal video recorders (PVRs) like TiVO and ReplayTV has enabled people to easily skip commercials on television, and ad blocking software is a perennial favorite on Internet download sites.

This Electronic Arts deal also builds upon advertiser interest in “advergaming” — a phenomenon in which games are built primarily to market a product. In the past few years, companies trying to appeal to younger people have increasingly offered games on their Web sites, in the hopes that people’s interaction with a branded game will increase their regard for the brand.

These trends have collided in these two ad agreements in part because marketers are now more eager to explore these opportunities, but also because it has taken some time for a game to become popular enough to be attractive to advertisers. More than 6.3 million copies of The Sims have shipped, and the game has become something of a pop culture phenomenon, garnering mentions on ABC Television’s “Drew Carey Show” and Fox Television’s “Malcolm in the Middle”.

So far, Electronic Arts says the consumer reaction to this type of placement has been positive. The company performed a test last fall that involved adding a virtual Pepsi vending machine to the objects that The Sims PC gamers can download and add to the world of their game. More than a million players downloaded that object.

While Electronic Arts hasn’t explored the idea of targeting specific sponsorships to individual players, partly out of concern for violating players’ privacy, the company isn’t shy about discussing the reporting capabilities available to advertisers.

“The nature of an online game allows us — from a game point of view — to monitor game play to see how many times people are interacting with different objects,” said Larson. “We’re measuring and monitoring how the players in the community are doing, and we can measure and change as we go. We will definitely be keeping track of how the players are interacting with the sponsor objects.”

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