The Problem With Video Game Advertising

The Problem With Video Game Advertising

Warning: The following opinions expressed are those of the writer and not necessarily those shared by Game Theory or its staff.

Game publishers are not legally obliged to employ good taste in their advertisements, a fact we’re often reminded of when we flip through the channels and pause on raunchy and/or violent game commercials. Shocking declarations made via commercials (“Buy me Bonestorm or go to hell!”) is one of the oldest, most effective ways to draw people’s attention to whatever you’re selling,

It’s therefore understandable why EA launched the much talked-about “Your Mom’s Gonna Hate It” television ad campaign for Dead Space 2. It has already sparked a good deal of conversation about the game, which is invaluable for a high-budget retail game competing in a market that’s slowly shifting more focus on downloadable titles. But the ads for Dead Space 2 are more than just quick doses of attention-seeking. The ads can potentially create trouble for the industry in the long-term, especially if more publishers adopt EA’s advertising methods.

The Your Mom Hates Dead Space 2 campaign ushered moms from a conservative part of America into a room where they were shown some bloody footage from Dead Space 2. As the tagline promised, the moms hated what they saw. They gasped, they raised their hands to their mouths, they stopped just short of breaking into tears. Their reactions were recorded and threaded into a commercial. EA’s Behind the Scenes video for the ad outlines the creative process.

EA makes its point. Moms hate Dead Space 2. We weren’t entirely convinced that they ever aimed to pop the game in after a few sessions of Wii Sports Resort, but whatever. Now we know without question that moms disapprove of gory space-bound massacres.

The troubling thing about EA’s ad is that it’s hard to pinpoint what demographic the publisher is trying to appeal to. Dead Space 2 is rated M. It’s appropriate for adults above 18 years of age. Most 18-year-olds have moved beyond their most rebellious years; they’d rather take their mom out for a nice lunch rather than horrify them with bloody game footage. In turn, most moms understand that once their child hits the magic one-eight, it’s no longer necessary to police their child’s video game buying habits.

So we can surmise that EA’s ad campaign targets an audience that still measures a product’s “cool” factor by how deeply it sends their parents into fits of outrage–generally, 12- to- 16-year olds. In fact, EA brags about Dead Space 2′s mom-measured level of coolness in the first few seconds of its “Making Of” video. The ad and its brief documentary trumpet a troubling point that EA has wisely refrained from stating outright: The kids who are supposed to be impressed by the Dead Space 2 ad campaign aren’t anywhere near old enough to be playing an M-rated game.

We’re not naive about kids’ playing and viewing habits. Growing up, most of us played games and watched movies that weren’t rated for our age group. We didn’t turn into maniacs. A 12-year-old who plays Dead Space 2 probably won’t be psychologically scarred, either–though he or she might suddenly be compelled to dig out that old Snoopy night light from the bottom of the sock drawer.

The effect of Dead Space 2 on kids’ mental health isn’t the problem. The biggest problem with EA’s campaign is that it’s dishonest, and borderline immoral. Video games have been making a long, slow climb into mainstream acceptance in recent years, but one trip-up means a lot of ground lost. Casual games have helped re-shape video gaming as a pastime, but EA’s ad shows us footage of horrified mothers while assuring us that Dead Space 2 is “everything [we] love in a video game.” Well, that opens up a lot of ground, doesn’t it? A video game can be about shooting things, but it can just as easily be about solving a puzzle or jumping on mushroom people. Without arguing whether or not Dead Space 2 is a good game, even lots of hardcore gamers won’t be attracted to what it offers.

The commercial also exhibits subtle ESRB-dodging. The Advertising Review Council is supposed to make sure game ads “follow standardized requirements for the display of ratings information and that advertising content is responsible, appropriate, truthful, and accurate. It also implements marketing guidelines that prohibit game publishers from targeting audiences for whom products are not appropriate.” The Dead Space 2 ads slide around those limitations–just barely–by pairing mothers with the game footage instead of kids. It’s technically allowed, as it makes the commercial’s targets seemingly ambiguous.

We know what EA is going for here, but the publisher has made it difficult to peg any blame on them. In the short term, Dead Space 2‘s ad campaign is actually pretty clever: It’s stirred up a lot of conversation and emotion. But in the long term, it might inspire similar campaigns that attempt similar methods and land video games in deep hot water with political groups when politicians ask, “This game is rated M. Why is it being targeted–however subtlety–for children?” Video games are finally gaining some credit as an all-ages pastime. It would be sad to piss that all away for the sake of one ad campaign.

Finally: It’s kind of a mean commercial, even for the “punk teen” demographic. Who really wants to see their moms scared half to death by violent imagery?

About Nadia Oxford
Nadia is a freelance writer living in Toronto. She played her first game at four, decided games were awesome, and has maintained her position since. She writes for 1UP.com, Slide to Play, GamePro and other publications, and is About.com’s Guide to the Nintendo DS.

1 Comments

  1. Though the article was an interesting read, I perceived the comercial quite differently. The whole “your mom’s gonna hate this” theme had a bit of a positive look to it, as moms typically buy games for their children, and instead of hiding the intense and graphic violence it makes front page, exposing the gory game for exactly what it is. That being said, very few parents are going to buy this game mistaking it for a mildly frightening game consisting mostly of tight corridors and poor lighting.

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