Campaign finance and advertising have been a heated subject of discussion down the stretch of this fall’s presidential election, particularly the role of Super PACS in both the contest between President Obama and Mitt Romney and down ballot races. But though it’s unlikely to change the game entirely, the Obama campaign is going back to a kind of advertising it pioneered in 2008: billboards within Electronic Arts campaigns. Obama was the first candidate to advertise in video games in that race, which is all well and good. But while it’s easier to report on who’s spending what, and on what kinds of advertising, the larger question with this, and with the rest of the campaign advertising we’re awash in, is whether it makes a difference.
Commercial brands seem to believe that in-game advertising is valuable. Unilever signed a deal this spring to place its products inside the Sims. It’s a kind of advertising that makes sense because it can be smoothly integrated into the environment where it appears. Tricia Duryee put it, “It’s much harder to work a bottle of shampoo into a game that’s set in the forest or at a poker table. But when a game is about sleeping, eating microwave dinners or taking showers, that sort of product placement becomes much easier.” It’s not disruptive to have products be branded in-game as they are in real life. And if advertisers are looking for product recognition and familiarity, placement is an easy way to achieve it.
That said, the overall impact of in-game advertising appears to be a bit of a mixed bag, for both game companies and advertisers themselves. EA may have more than 300 million users, about whom they have a fair amount of data. But straight-up display advertising doesn’t seem to have become a core business for it and other video game companies the way it is for, say, television networks. If players want to escape into a world, the best way to sell your product or your person may be to bow to the rules of that world, rather than placing advertising that takes players out of the universe they’ve entered.
The Obama campaign’s decision to spend money on advertising in EA games may be about generating impressions and reminding folks to step away from the console on or before November 6 (the 2008 ads reminded players that early voting had started, among other messages). But it’s also a way of letting a constituency know that they’re on the campaign’s mind. It’s become all too easy for advertisers, political and otherwise, to gin up stories about spots that they have no intention of actually running, or no funds to actually air. But to get attention to your advertising in a sector of the media that isn’t dedicating a lot of space to campaign coverage is a clever trick. And that coverage, more so than the ads themselves, may be worth the money.