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Fuel for the fire: advertising stunts in gaming September 11, 2008

Posted by Mike in Articles, Console, Games, Miscellaneous.
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The videogames industry in 2008 is a multi-billion dollar behemoth, fighting for the same consumer dollar as Hollywood and the music business in economic times that are becoming harder by the day. Recession-proof the industry may turn out to be, but any means of drawing wider mainstream attention to videogames past the so-called “hardcore” remains the Holy Grail for publishers and developers alike. Nintendo is fortunate enough to be in the position where its Wii console is regularly pictured in lifestyle magazines and newspaper supplements, usually being enjoyed by bowling-obsessed energetic grannies, but for almost everyone else, there’s only one sure-fire way to find their game in the papers: controversy.

Whether it’s the original Resident Evil magazine advertisement back in 1996, which featured a blood-splattered bathtub; or the bizarre US competition for Turok: Evolution in 2002, where parents were invited to name their newborn baby after the titular dinosaur hunter in order to win $10,000; or the headline-chasing, MP-baiting level of violence in Manhunt 2, throughout the years it seems that no stunt is too risky if it stands a good chance of granting game-makers the oxygen of extra publicity and the resulting higher sales potential.

Last Friday morning was no exception, when EA’s promotion for Mercenaries 2: World in Flames encouraged motorists to beat the credit crunch by filling their cars up with £40 of free fuel at a petrol station in Finsbury Park, London. What could possibly go wrong, right? The no-Mystic-Meg-required result was rush-hour traffic chaos, screaming matches between vehicle owners, police intervention, the premature abandonment of the whole thing, and then the point of the exercise: feigned ‘outrage’ from politicians and motoring organisations plastered all over the news media. The whole affair was irresponsible, ill-advised and breathtakingly naïve. At the same time, it was an absolutely brilliant marketing wheeze. A £20,000 fuel giveaway versus the amount of advertising spend it would take to gain the same level of media publicity… economically, it’s a no-brainer.

The EA spokesperson, Donald Parrish, claimed that, “Petrol is expensive at the moment and people are having a hard time so we just wanted to do something for them.” There was also an amusing attempt to link the chaos to the economic situation in Venezuela that the game’s setting supposedly satirises, which was a leap worthy of an Olympic long jump world record. I find it hard to believe that nobody considered the possible consequences of such a fuel giveaway, particularly when you consider the petrol price protests in 2000 and the continuing public ire towards the Government’s treatment of motorists. The responsible thing for EA to do in the circumstances would be an internal review to “learn the lessons” of the debacle (this must sound rather familiar to followers of politics out there), but it’s likely that instead of heads being rolled, the clever fellow who came up with the idea will probably be patted on the back. If I was EA, I’d be doing the same, particularly as the media coverage no doubt played a part in securing Mercenaries 2’s entry straight in at number 1 in this week’s software charts.

This won’t be the last videogames related controversy of the year, you can be assured of that. Like that bathtub in the old Resident Evil ad, the videogames industry is a bloody battleground that takes no prisoners in the pursuit of publicity.

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