Can Video Games Save TV Commercials?

Can Video Games Save TV Commercials?

Gameplay during commercials may be an effective way to get more people to pay attention to sponsored ads on broadcast television. Interestingly, it is very rare to see any type of contest or game-like promotion to reward people for watching commercials, even though that behavior is highly desirable to broadcast advertisers.

Just a few questions worth asking ourselves when it comes to video games and TV commercials include:

  • Can gameplay be used as incentives for attentive TV commercial viewing? Could games help television advertisers cultivate the interactive engagement and motivation that lead to direct response after ads are viewed?
  • Are commercial games rare because games were not effective in this role in the past? Or is it because so many marketers assume any type of game has to involve an expensive prize or legal consultation to make sure the promotion is on the right side of gambling and lottery laws?
  • What types of games would be compelling during live broadcast commercial breaks? What issues would need to be addressed to prevent people who did not watch the commercial from simply scraping the commercial contents from a web resource after the actual broadcast?

Zapping and Zipping Commercials into Extinction

Since the development of the home VCR, advertisers have been concerned with zipping—fast forwarding through commercials during recordings of sponsored television programs. Newer technologies have only increased advertiser paranoia that television viewers are prerecording shows and then skipping the commercial breaks. A similar concern was raised with the advent of remote controls which let users change the channel during commercial breaks with very little physical effort (zapping).

When advertisers complained, the television networks produced studies that showed viewers were already avoiding annoying or boring commercials by leaving the room or otherwise diverting attention during commercial breaks regardless of the remote control or recording devices. The general result was that big brands had to make more interesting commercials or utilize product placement and other clever ways to integrate ad messaging into television programs.

More Watchable Commercials = More Expensive Commercials

Commercial production values are often very good. Feature-film quality TV commercials are not uncommon today and some commercials are enjoyable enough that they can function as short-form programming (these top-shelf commercials tend to go viral online too). Many commercials have been episodic or featured some type of comedy skit to keep viewers from zapping or zipping away.

However, this has not always resulted in the strongest brand messaging. How many times have you seen a remarkable, attention-grabbing commercial but you could not remember what was being advertised? Or you did recognize the brand, but the flashy commercial did absolutely nothing to warm you to the product. I can think of several commercials that I like much more than the products they advertise.

These great-looking commercials from big brands cast a cold, dark shadow over the local advertising on television today (your local injury lawyer and car dealership ads look pretty shabby by comparison). Just about the only way for a local commercial to get significant attention is if it’s so bad that it actually becomes legendary for sucking.

So if a small business brand is still interested in broadcast television, but dancing CG hamsters would break the ad budget, why not try games?

Seriously, I’m asking you.

I searched around and couldn’t find much information about the lack of gameification in my local television ads. I think that gameplay would be a very cheap way to make a local commercial more compelling and actionable, especially now that there are location based game services to tie into (Foursquare, Gowalla, etc.).

Can you imagine a beer commercial during a sports game that tied into a web-based “betting system” promoted through local bars? If the team you picked when you started your bar tab is ahead when the commercial runs, you could get a discount on your beer from that advertiser in any participating bar. And if your picks win on four consecutive “game nights” with the commercial (trackable on a mobile app), you could get a better deal like a $2 pitcher. Interactive television promotions like that are totally doable today.

Game Design for 15-Second Commercials?

First, let’s look at some business issues that might kill a “gamercial” before it starts (sorry, I can’t help but make up terrible gameification buzzwords… it’s a sickness).

  • Are commercial games rare because games were not effective in the past? I am still researching this. I have vague memories of game codes on commercials (from the ’80s or ’90s) that tied in with some kind of print promotion, but I am having a hard time finding information about gameplay that viewers can participate in during broadcast television commercials. I will do a follow-up post once I have more information (and hopefully some interviews). Leave a comment if you have any leads.
  • Do many marketers assume any type of game has to involve an expensive prize? Generally, yes, I do think marketers assume a contest prize has to be some physical deliverable with a cash value. In fact, I found this game show that asks users to watch 30 commercials in a row, then call in to answer 3 trivia questions about the commercials they just viewed. After that point, they are entered into a drawing for $1,000.00.

However, there is ample evidence that today’s digital lifestyle has boosted the value of virtual goods enough that access to virtual items can be a very attractive prize: Virtual world goods, virtual goods in online games, virtual gifts on social networks that support gifting, badges on collection-oriented games like Gowalla and Foursquare, coupon codes, and digitial media like desktop or mobile wallpapers, ringtones, or video clips.

  • Are gamercials rare because of the legal wrangling with pesky gambling and lottery laws? This may be a deterrent. Many potential problems can be avoided if standard eligibility rules are followed (check any contest running from a major company and you’ll see common rules about who is and is not eligible to win). Even better, choose game rewards with no cash value. Though an experienced attorney in this area should be able to structure your game rules appropriately, a small local business will already be spending quite a bit to make a commercial and buy television time so minimizing additional legal expenses may be another reason people don’t put games in their television ads.
  • What types of games would be compelling during live broadcast commercial breaks? The average commercial hook is 15 seconds long. Luckily, there are many games that lend themselves to short, burst-like rounds of play. Some possibilities include memory games, hidden picture games, word games, trivia, and collection/scavenger hunt games (codes, symbols, or other collectibles that can be seen or heard, then recorded via mobile, computer, or home phone). If there was some time-sensitivity involved between the time the commercial is viewed and the time it is recorded, it could create a powerful call to prompt action that most television commercials lack. The types of video response contests that run frequently on YouTube may also translate well to commercial breaks on broadcast television. (Such as a challenge to record yourself in a “reaction shot” to the end of the current program or a commercial set to run later in that same time slot, and then some chance to win fame or freebies by posting your video on the sponsor’s YouTube channel).
  • What issues would need to be addressed to prevent people who did not watch the commercial from simply scraping the commercial contents from a web resource after the actual broadcast? Time-sensitivity may not help prevent “cheating” in a world where it only takes one person to watch the broadcast and disseminate the game token (whatever it may be) to thousands of people online with one tweet or post. However, if the point of the ad is to arouse action, brand awareness, and attention, it may not even be desirable to limit the viability of game tokens spread virally after the broadcast. Ultimately, the best thing a game could do for a television commercial, particularly the lower-budget local ads, would be to inspire any kind of word-of-mouth sharing in a local or online community.

Would a good game make you pay closer attention to television commercials? Would you tune into certain programs or watch the news on a particular station if you knew there would be a round of trivia or some game token to collect? Add a comment below – inquiring minds want to know.

About Kelly Rued
Kelly Rued is an entrepreneur, entertainment designer and Internet marketer specializing in adult markets. She designs websites and apps that target measurable business results. Her blog explores marketing games, user engagement and productivity/entertainment.

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