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How TV ads signal a widening divide in video game marketing

Commercial Break



In the gaps between the action, I expected Miller Chill with lime, McDonald's chicken sandwiches, and, naturally, enough promos for Will Smith's Hancock to choke several horses.

But I didn't expect videogames.

There it was, right smack in the middle of ABC's broadcast of the NBA Finals, a helicopter sailing toward us in a riff on Apocalypse Now. A bunch of well-rendered military grunts trading smartass quips. A portentous announcer ("Deep within the U.S. Army exists an elite force deployed for precise tactical operations ...") And, of course, some gameplay footage of big guns and explosions.

In short, it looked just like an ad for a summer blockbuster. Instead, it was a high-quality trailer for Electronic Arts' Battlefield: Bad Company, one of several games that's currently competing for your gaming dollars.

Theoretically, a videogame commercial shouldn't be a big deal. It's not like it's a novel concept. Game developers have been doing this sort of thing forever.

But things have changed. It used to be game trailers appeared on channels where marketers thought gamers spent the majority of their non-interactive screen time, places like Comedy Central, G4, and Spike.

The target audience for these bits of video game vérité are the folks who frequent game stores and point their browsers to IGN, Joystiq, and Gamespot several hundred times a day. They're not Joe Sixpack hoops fans camping out on the couch to watch the Celtics tame the Lakers on a Big Three network.

In a way, the mainstream exposure was sorta refreshing. Gaming's relationship with television commercials has lately gone the other way. Corporations use videogames as cultural lightning rods to hone in on their target demographics. Coke has riffed amusingly on the Grand Theft Auto universe. Southwest Airlines cracked a funny, if predictable, toss-the-controller Wii joke. The venerable World of Warcraft has been used to hawk, of all things, GMC trucks.

In this sense, it's nice to see a commercial in which gaming is used to promote, well, gaming. It's almost enough to make you believe that game trailers in prime-time TV could become as routine an experience as seeing John Hodgman in a PC vs. Mac spot. It may be wishful thinking.

Problem is, like the movie advertisements that game trailers so often imitate, the playing field is as uneven as Fox News' political coverage. You saw Battlefield: Bad Company commercials in between Ray Allen threes and Paul Pierce driving to the lane, because Electronic Arts has an advertising budget twice the size of Boston.

The other big developers — think Take Two and Activision — can also afford to play this game, but lower-key developers, the Atluses and Majescos of the world, really can't. Certainly not in prime time, on a stage where millions of game-playing eyeballs are anxiously trained.

You also wonder if the big-time commercial strategy EA just deployed might backfire if the game doesn't live up to its million-dollar advertising hype. You wonder if, in showing a cornucopia of cut scene hijinks, Battlefield: Bad Company is going to be like the rookie pitcher who shows his best pitch in the first inning and ends up rocked in inning two. Or, perhaps more pointedly, like The Love Guru, a bomb that, like a lot of movies, clearly packed the few funny jokes it had into the trailer. Even gaming is subject to caveat emptor.

You certainly won't find me complaining if game commercials start replacing those hideous ads for Bill Green's legal advice or Dunkin' Donuts. Even a game trailer for The Sims: IKEA Edition has to be better than that.

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