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April 03, 2008

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The other night I was watching The Weather Man, a quirky little film starring Nicholas Cage¹. Although it turned out to be somewhat mixed up with the point of the movie, product placement featured heavily in it, particularly early on, with three very prominent fast food franchises appearing in the first 30 minutes or so of the film. It was so blatant that I had to hope that it had something to do with the movie, but at the same time, I was still being subjected to a bunch of marketing. All of this had come a scant half hour after watching an hour of HBO's The Wire², where the detectives were sitting around a table, a Dunkin Donuts box prominently displayed in the foreground. I'm thinking of switching entirely to period pieces and science fiction³ to get away from the constant incursions of advertisting.

You know, it starts to get annoying, ads all over the place, the constant encroachment of other marketing opportunities on entertainment. It's twelve minutes of previews before a film, preceded by a slide-show sponsored by Coke. It's DVDs where you can't skip past all of that with a simple tap of the menu button. It's constant and everywhere and very hard to escape, even in a world which includes TiVo and its brethren.

I hear about in-roads being made to place advertising in games. There was a story up on GamaSutra just this past week or so, two companies joining together to provide ads in future games. And since I've begun writing this piece, Gearbox Software CEO Randy Pitchford has shown up on GamaSutra to discuss the benefits of ads in games. Pitchford identified three reasons for in-game ad placement: authenticity, budget, and cross-promotion. Although I have some thoughts about those last two, I want to focus on ads and authenticity.

Authenticity is an interesting beast. I haven't played Gearbox Software's games, except for a little bit of that multiplayer Wolfenstein game, but on the face of it, authenticity seems like a fairly reasonable argument. Pitchford cites specific examples of real-world corporations that participated in the Nazi war effort4, such as Philips and Opel. Not having agreements with these companies, says Pitchford, would mean leaving out authentic details like the Philips and Opel logos.

Now, I'm not going to claim that there aren't any players out there that would miss such details, but I have to say, I suspect their numbers are relatively few. And as soon as advertising money starts getting in there, I start to wonder about things. I'm not asserting that there was or has ever been any impropriety at Gearbox -- Pitchford is in the industry news a fair amount and he seems like he has integrity. But when I read Philips is giving them money and at the same time hearing that one of their levels "happens to take place in" the Philips factory in Eindhoven (in the Netherlands), I see the potential for the whiff of impropriety.

It's my feeling that when you deal with corporations about issues like this, you need to question their motives. In the case of Philips, are they hoping to get a fair shake from history about their involvement with the Nazis? I gather (from Wikipedia) that some would call Philips' actions during the war collaboration. Are they simply looking to get the brand out there, assuming brand growth simply from recognition? After all, most people don't associate Tylenol with poison despite the Tylenol killings (still unsolved!) back in the 1980s. Wouldn't it be better to associate the Philips name with a pleasant series of scheduled rewards, make the consumer associate heroism with the Philips brand. Are they going further, suggesting that a helpful supplier of intelligence might be a Philips manager, wearing a Philips cap?

Honestly, I don't know. But I wonder how I would be able to determine authentic from ad-driven in Brothers in Arms. I doubt we'll get information about what Philips paid for, and how much they paid, as most companies would consider those to be trade secrets. We have Pitchford's reassurances, but once money enters the equation, it's hard to know where the authenticity line is. The point is not that I think Gearbox's games will be less authentic as a result; the point is that I won't know what's authentic and what's not, despite being a fairly well-read and literate consumer of games. It's distracting not knowing while I play.

I'd like to see Gearbox be able to just use the material, since it was clearly present in photographs of the period; then at least I'd know that it was coming from their own point-of-view, and I could read their attempts at authenticity as genuine, as a selling point, or as a creative drive. But I know that lawsuits, with their immense expense, have had a hugely chilling effect of the use of such materials. I look around at some of the threats of lawsuits and such and wonder what brought us this far. It's crazy to me that the Anglican church would threaten to sue a video game maker for the portrayal of Manchester Cathedral, a long-standing public building. I realize that England's protection of speech is likely different from the Constitutional protections we enjoy here; even so, it seems that it would be covered by the freedom of expression article in the European Convention on Human Rights. I almost wish Sony had just stood up and said, "You know what? Sue us, we'll defend under freedom of expression" to set a precedent, particularly given one impression I've read of the deeper meaning of the Cathedral gameplay. They have the deep pockets to do so, and thus, they can and should act as a vanguard -- if only to prevent such chilling effects on the industry in the future, and therefore help to ensure their long-term business.

I've been playing co-op games of Rainbox Six Vegas for quite some time now, and it's been interesting to see the advertising at work in that game. From what I've seen, the ads tend to be on the billboards outside the missions, in the helicopter-ride cutscenes. One night in particular I noticed an Axe ad on the billboard, which might fit in perfectly in Vegas, I have no idea, having never been. But I'm fairly certain that it wasn't the same ad that had been there the last time we had played; the art stood out like a sore thumb, since it was easily twice the resolution of the rest of the level (which gets all blurred out due to post-processing effects).

In cases like these, where the cutscene occurs at a particular time in the story, the changing of these ads is remarkably distracting. I mean, that's sort of the point, in a way... if I hardly even noticed the ad, or didn't notice it all, it wouldn't be doing its advertising job. But it works directly against the grain of the game, which is, of course, the thing I purchased. I am distracted from the game I'm playing by the sudden lack of realism in the environment -- the inconstancy (in time) and the inconsistency (in visuals) of it.

I expect advertising in magazines; they're set apart, though I don't like the ones that mask themselves as if they were articles (with a discreet "Advertisement" across the top or bottom). I expect previews before movies5; I can at least attempt to ignore them. But I don't expect ads in books. I don't expect them in the midst of television shows or movies, as product placements. And I certainly don't expect them in games. In these latter three examples, they almost always distract and detract. Advertising, even when well done and even in the service of authenticity, pulls me out of the game; it's an unwelcome incursion.

¹Cage does the occasional quirky performance, in things like Bringing Out the Dead, but oddly enough, it turned out to be directed by Gore Verbinski, recent headliner at DICE and director of the Pirates of the Caribbean films, the first of which I really enjoyed. (back)

²Until recently, the best show on television, but it recently finished up after 5 seasons. I can't wait until it turns up on DVD. (back)

³I was thinking of Battlestar Galactica as I jotted that down, which doesn't have any of that, but of course, Blade Runner featured an early, particularly egregious example of in-film advertising, which might have fit the setting but still came off as garish. (back)

4I had assumed that Philips was a German company, but as it turns out, it is headquartered in the Netherlands. (back)

5Even though there, too, they work against my needs -- watching most previews is usually enough to fill me in on the plot details. I'll never forgive Warner Bros. for the detail of Richard Kimble jumping... well, if you've seen it, you know. Of course, Chris Corry won't forgive me for giving away Half-Life 2, Episode 2, so who am I to throw stones? (back)

Posted by Brett Douville at 01:17 PM | Comments (0)