Sold Out: Product Placement in Videogames

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Brand This

n the new world of branding the common idea of advertising has gone out the window, instead being replaced by a universe where brands are supposed to embody more than simple products. Here the brand is supposed to convey a lifestyle a consumer is supposed to desire, which they then use to define themselves in this confusing technopolis. Product placement is the developing standard of this new machine, injecting these very brands into our media as a way of giving them the appearance of continuity and inevitability. Video games, as our standard for interactive art, are equally subject to this type of pillaging from common brands. This has been on the rise for years and has not been under the same kind of scrutiny and criticism that other types of product placement have been.

A History of Commercialism

We remember early incarnations of this as being the brand name vehicles in games like Grand Turismo, but in reality it had been in existence for far beyond this. Non-traditional brands, such as sporting leagues, have been authorizing games for years as a way to perpetuate “authenticity.” While this is something that a player desires, a paid advertisement for this brand does not allow the game to give a fair and realistic interpretation of reality. Today brands seep into all areas of game play, whether it is billboards in the game space or virtual products that players can “purchase” while in play. The idea is that this adds realism to the game, but it only does so when the brands that are chosen are representative of reality. This is never the case when brands pay for their image to be associated in a positive fashion. This creates hyper-real situations where only particular brands even exist in a certain area.

Engaging the Ad

There are a number of reasons why games have become a new primary target for advertising insiders, not the least of which is its lower price. Product placement in a film or television program can cost millions of dollars depending on its use. An advertiser, in conjunction with a firm that specializes in product placement, can choose from three standard options within that type of medium. They can have the product just simply be in the space, they can have the characters interact with the product, or they can even have the product become a part of the story. In either case the instance of the product is fleeting and the audience has to be well invested in the film or program at the time the product is displayed to properly receive the brand message. In a video game a company can pay less than a million dollars for the player to actually interact with the brand personally in a variety of different ways.

A Way of Life

The most important reason that video games are the new frontier is that the companies are interested in extending the brand far beyond the practical use for its products. If you are allowed to use a product in a specific way, even if it is only virtually, the consumer will then correlate that product with the lifestyle and sensation that the game portrays. The game then becomes a virtual incarnation of the brand, proving to you that those things in it are a part of the real world the game is portraying. Since it is even in the game it shows that the brand is not just a company selling an item but a social institution that is just as important as any other in civilization.

Continued Lack of Realism

The question is not whether licensed items in video games should be included, but how they are done so. Product placement does not perpetuate realism because it simply creates an interactive advertising model whose intent is not to be fair or foster creativity but to sell the product. Landscapes, vehicles, and items can be just as well put together without calling upon tired brand images, and this even allows for more ingenuity and customizability.

The Industry

The danger comes with the development of online gaming worlds where advertisements can actually be placed and then recorded similar to Internet pop-ups and web advertisements. The California nestled Double Fusion has designed an interface that helps to find demographics of gamers to more effectively place ads and product placements, using gaming preference as a way to sell both kids and adults non-gaming products. Companies like EA are already selling ad space to questionable companies like GM and Nike, whose real-life lack of business ethics seem to be a second thought for their virtual landlords. The online advertiser resource Brand Channel singles the reason that gamers are the perfect recipients of this kind of subversive brand messages. Gamers tend to return to their favorite games and franchises more often than other types of media consumers, mostly because their virtual world feels like an actual space that they inhabit in some sense. Likewise, gamers do not engage the medium passively like they may with television or film. All your time with a game is spent with your full attention, and you do not make a sandwich or clean the living room like you may when the television is on.

Soaking it Up

The most important part of this attention is that you cannot escape the brand images when they are in a game because they are built into the very fabric of the experience. You can mute a commercial and turn away from the average billboard, but when you are using a brand named gun in an action platformer you have no choice but to actually engage the image of that product.

Environmental Change

The essential format is changing as people integrate gaming into completely new social and personal functions. Online gaming worlds provide simulated experiences that give a distance-oriented version of actual interaction. This means that in place such as Second Life and Project Entropia people actual interact, even if it is through a medium. In this way those gaming environments are valid environments because the interactions are valid. The debate about the affect that this type of virtual reality has is endless, especially as it relates to alienated symbolic culture, but to the players they are absolutely legitimate. Now when these areas are then given up to the highest bidder it creates a situation when all the areas of this environment become branded, and are done so by only a small number of rich companies. This new world is commercial by its very nature, and as people become more entranced by such gaming environments they are more subject to this constant amount of commercial messaging.


Estimates are now putting the 2008 numbers on game sales at almost $17 billion, making it a serious rival to more traditional sources of mass media messages. Now we have synergy between companies and video games, even some unrelated campaigns trying to use the visual style of games to connect with consumers. This is another avenue that corporate consumerism undermines the dignity of an art form and attempts to persuade us into the belief that these companies are not just valuable but necessary. Unless gamers speak out about neutrality in games then the large conglomerates will have just have another avenue to connect with a new generation of passive consumers. It is important to note that gamers are not passive individuals even though their preferred form of art and sport is one that relies on incredible commercial consumerism. Videogames are not a hollow shell by which large corporations can manipulate people for synergistic buying patterns. The integrity of videogames must be maintained if the industry is going to grow, but it cannot do this if the responsibility is just left up to the companies. Gamers need to make their voices heard about such issues, and then the industry will follow suit.