In-game advertising: How brands are reaching new audiences

BY COLIN CAMPBELL

One of the marketing world’s most awarded branding campaigns of recent years was embedded inside a video game.

Bright sparks at Burger King’s agency David created a campaign within Electronic Arts’ FIFA 19. The burger chain sponsored lowly English soccer club Stevenage F.C. (in the real world) allowing its logo to appear on digital players’ shirts within the game. Burger King leveraged this to create FIFA gameplay challenges that users posted on social media, in the hope of winning prizes, including free food.

Fans shared 25,000 videos of goals, earning an estimated $2.5 million in earned media. The campaign won three prestigious Lions Grand Prix awards.

Brands are increasingly keen to use video games as marketing vehicles, either through sponsorship, partnerships, or in-game advertising. The prospect of gaming metaverses, in which millions of people congregate online to play games, socialize, and show-off, is sharpening marketers’ desire to understand best practices in a relatively untested arena.

Advertisers are excited by brand adjacency, scale, and environment. A fledgling metaverse like Fortnite ticks all three boxes, which is why the game is such a popular destination for marketing campaigns, most especially for action movies. No self-respecting campaign for a blockbuster superhero or sci-fi movie is complete without a set of Fortnite skins or special events. Disney has been a particularly keen participant, promoting Marvel and Star Wars movies through Epic’s online shooter.

Streamers on Twitch, YouTube and other platforms are popular destinations for advertising campaigns. Last year, Mountain Dew worked with top streamer Dr. Disrespect to promote its Game Fuel drink, which was specifically created for gamers.

When brands takeover games

Brands have been finding ways to market to gamers since gaming began. As early as 1982, Hostess snack cakes bought space in magazines that offered discounts on games and accessories.

That same year, McDonalds ran a promotion across the United States called “Taste the Thrill of Atari at McDonald’s” which included cool toys based on popular arcade games, as well as a prize pool of 10,000 Atari consoles. This pattern of fast-food tie-ins with console launches and themed toys was to be repeated again and again in the decades again.

In the 1990s, snack and soda companies worked closely with gaming brands and magazines to create a variety of campaigns that generally targeted the then-audience for games: teenage boys and young men. The ads generally made use of some game-related pun, or sought an “up your game”-style connection with gameplay excellence.

Some companies even created their own branded “advergames” distributed for free, like Chex Quest (1996), Pepsiman (1999), and Taco Bell Tasty Temple Challenge (2000). But the cost of game production generally reflected poorly on the brand, as games struggled to provide quality entertainment.

There was also the risk that gaming tie-ins would backfire. A notorious product-placement photograph of the famous gaming pundit Geoff Keighley sitting with a bag of Doritos and a Halo 4 standee is a case where game culture tie-ins were roundly mocked within gaming circles.

Even so, food companies are finding new and innovative ways to create connections with people who play games. Heinz recently worked with Activision as well as Call of Duty streamers to create a “hidden spots” campaign that shows players of Warzone the best places in game maps to take a break and grab something to eat.

GAMING AUDIENCES TODAY

Marketers no longer pander to gaming audiences, as if it were a specific demographic. Instead, games are seen as a useful replacement platform for declining media like television. In the UK, the average daily TV viewing time has declined from 341 minutes in 2012, to 183 minutes in 2019. On a weekly basis, commercial TV in the UK reaches less than 70% of people among the 18-34 years-old demographic, and less than 40% on a daily basis.

In 2021 (admittedly, a pandemic year), 227 million Americans said that they played video games. 45% of people who play games are women and girls, according to the Entertainment Software Association’s 2021 annual report. According to eMarketer, consumers spent 9 billion hours in Q2 2021 watching video game livestreams around the world, up from 3.8 billion hours in just two years.

when ads get in the way

Unfortunately, marketing through video games is notoriously difficult. While television and magazines are designed to be supported by advertising, video games are not, and consumers generally react poorly to the intrusion of commercials into their fantasy experiences. A particularly egregious example – Monster Energy drinks in the post-apocalyptic epic Death Stranding – attracted widespread derision.


Free mobile games often feature clunky advertising interstitials or free digital goodies for players who agree to watch video ads, but these are unattractive to serious brand managers, who dislike the sense of intrusion of a grubby transaction.

In-game ads are mostly restricted to the exact same places you might expect to see them in real life, such as sports stadiums and racing track boardings or city center billboards. This is why traversable, social spaces like game lobbies and metaverse real estate are becoming more attractive to advertisers. They are neutral areas where advertising can feel congruous and broadly acceptable.

The future of in-game advertising

In April this year, a company called Frameplay introduced a new metric specifically catering for in-game advertisers, called “intrinsic time in view” it measures the amount of time a player’s eyes rest on an ad. The metric is blacked up by eye-tracking software, and is claimed to demonstrate the superior effectiveness of in-game advertising over rival platforms.

Meanwhile, in-game advertising broker Anzu recently teamed up with NBC Universal to funnel ads from the TV network’s vast client base into in-game advertising. The deal creates a channel between traditional TV advertising, and the burgeoning in-game advertising sector.

“Over the next few years, most Fortune 500 brands will incorporate gaming into their ad strategies,” said Anzu CEO Itamar Benedy, and NBC agrees. “In addition to streaming, gaming is one of the fastest growing ways to reach young audiences,” said Krishan Bhatia, president and CEO of NBCUniversal. “This partnership with Anzu will allow our marketers to engage with an audience of over three billion gamers worldwide, and we’re only getting started.”

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