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The Designer's Notebook: The Slippery Slope of Advertising

May 28, 1999
 

A while ago, I wondered idly whether we could ever return to a feudal society. Feudalism was a social structure based on the principle that every person had a master, an individual to whom he or she owed allegiance, taxes, and in the case of men, military service. The peasants owed their labor to the nobility, and the nobility owed theirs to the king. In return for these services, the feudal masters were supposed (in principle, anyway) to provide civil and criminal justice and protection in times of war. More enlightened lords also made some effort to see to the welfare of their people during famines and droughts.

The actual details of feudalism were rather fluid, just as our governments are today. They changed constantly based on the political situation of the moment. Lords squabbled with one another over land, vied with each other for the king’s favor, and generally tried to increase their power and prestige at the expense of their neighbors.

Feudalism wasn’t very economically efficient, but it existed at a time when people had no conception of progress — they believed that the social and economic order was ordained by God, and would not change until the Last Judgment, which they expected to come at any moment. The nobility had a vested interest in maintaining their privileges, so preserving the status quo was a high priority for them.

The question, then, was how this pyramid of obligations and alliances could map onto the modern world. And it occurred to me that it might conceivably happen through corporations.

Look around the nearest shopping mall on a Saturday and notice how many people are wearing a corporate logo on their clothing. They’re expressing support for, and affiliation with, the company that owns the logo. They are, in effect, advertising the company for nothing; but they’re also connecting themselves with that company’s prestige. People like to feel loyalty, and they like to be associated with something powerful and successful. To say that you’re a Budweiser man or a Reebok woman is to define yourself to the world and to identify yourself to others of your clan.

Of course, you really should be feeling this kind of loyalty to your nation, but nowadays national governments are too big and too distant, and their effect on peoples’ lives is too indirect for many people to feel it in a personal way. I may send my taxes to Uncle Sam once a year and occasionally I notice the roads getting paved, but that’s about it as far as my personal connection with the federal government is concerned. On the other hand, I buy beer once a week and I have found that I get along well with the kinds of people who like my brand of beer. So, I wear a baseball cap that expresses this affiliation, and it draws approval and support from others like me.

With corporate merger mania, it’s not too difficult to imagine a future in which you belong either to the Coke-Nike-Ford clan or the Pepsi-Reebok-Chevy clan. You would only work for a company that was part of your corporate feudal hierarchy, and you would only buy products from the same group. If corporate power grew strong enough, and government grew weak enough, such a system could be every bit as tyrannical and undemocratic as medieval feudalism.

I haven’t thought through the idea in any detail; it’s just something I’ve toyed with and I’m sure a decent economist could come up with a dozen objections in five minutes. But it’s as good a way as any to raise a game design issue that concerns me, and that is corporate sponsorship of computer games.

Advertising is ubiquitous in the modern world. From the corporate logotype which appears on almost every product in the home to the billboards beside our highways and the pages of our newspapers, it’s difficult to find a place where you can look around and not see a corporate emblem somewhere. Even if you go out into the woods, the other hikers you meet will be wearing T-shirts by Ralph Lauren and carrying backpacks by Eddie Bauer.

One of the odd consequences of this is that movies and television shows have a slightly artificial look because they're not allowed to use corporate emblems without permission. Ordinarily we expect to see people surrounded with corporate advertising, particularly if they’re in a public place, but on TV that’s never the case. Even if there’s a scene in a grocery store, all the items on the shelves will be vague, unidentifiable brands, almost as if the scene were taking place in a foreign country. It breaks the suspension of disbelief not to see the familiar boxes of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes and Coca-Cola, and it reminds us that what we’re seeing is really just a studio set.

The exception to this occurs when a company has paid the movie producers to feature its name or goods prominently in a film — a practice known as "product placement." In 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dr. Floyd arrives at the space station aboard a Pan Am shuttle (which is still using the 1960’s era Pan Am logo). Once there, he walks past a Hilton hotel and makes a phone call from a Bell telephone booth. In a more recent movie, Batman was a Coca-Cola drinker.

Unfortunately, this looks even phonier than the complete absence of logos. When a movie includes a product placement, the product never appears out of focus in the background, or partially obscured as it would in real life. Instead, it’s usually sharply focused in the foreground of a shot that lasts a little longer than necessary. If two people are having a discussion in front of a soft drink vending machine, they’ll stand carefully to either side of the corporate logo so that we can’t miss it. Yeah, we get the message guys.

In the game industry we’re always on the lookout for ways to raise more money to develop our games, and the possibilities of advertising and product placement have got to be tempting. But they’re dangerous.

Advertisers want to get the most for their money, and when they buy magazine ads, they’re often not content to pay just for the space and the circulation. They want to influence the content too, to help them sell their products. The worst example of this is in so-called "women’s" magazines. If you look at the women’s magazines of 100 years ago, they contained a lot of fiction and a fair amount of serious news. But the women’s magazines of today are devoted almost entirely to stories about food, fashion, and beauty tips. Why? Because the advertisers who sell food, clothes and cosmetics through ads in those magazines demand it. They want their ads appearing next to copy that will encourage people to buy their products, and they emphatically don’t want their ads next to anything which will make people feel unhappy or concerned. Investigative journalism on serious topics is not welcome.

The news magazines try to establish standards of journalistic ethics to prevent this. They charge more at the newsstand for their products so they’ll be less dependent on ad revenues. They establish a "Chinese wall" between their advertising and editorial departments, so that neither can influence the other. Still, how many times have you seen a "Special Section on Health" in a news magazine, which just happens to be full of ads from the pharmaceutical industry? And those special sections somehow never contain quite as many hard-hitting stories investigating pharmaceutical companies as the magazine ordinarily would.

Sponsorships are just starting to appear in games, and interestingly enough, it’s mostly in the games that look odd without them — sports games. Stock car racing, for example, includes sponsors’ logos on every available surface of the car and on the drivers’ clothing. A stock car racing game without those corporate logos would seem strange — like the scenes in grocery stores in movies. The same is true of soccer. The edges of soccer fields in Europe always have sponsors’ names all around them, and an accurate computer game should have the same thing.

At the moment, the sponsors’ names which appear in sports games are usually there by courtesy. The companies featured don’t regard computer games as serious advertising venues, and in fact the publishers may be giving them a token compensation — fifty copies of the game, say — for having received permission to include the logo. But you can be certain that if advertisers start to pay to have their products featured in games, they will start wanting some say over the games themselves. And that’s a slippery slope.

There’s no question that we can use the money. We’ll make good use of the money. And we’ll like the money and begin to need the money and eventually we’ll become completely addicted to the money and unable to function without it. And when that day comes, your game design decisions will be subordinated to the question of how much breakfast cereal they will sell. Some pinstriped creep on Madison Avenue will be dictating to you.

I’ve talked to a lot of game designers. With a few exceptions, they didn’t get into this business just to squeeze every nickel out of it that they could. We’re here because we want to build and to play. We want to create enjoyment. We want to feel the entertainer’s pleasure at watching others have fun with the things that we have made. Advertising corrupts that simple motivation You can’t make the best game you know how if a sponsor is constantly looking over your shoulder, making sure that nothing you do obscures or conflicts with its "message."

It’s true that advertising keeps the costs down for the customers and raises the profits for the information-providers. But if you accept advertising, you must serve two masters: your customers and your sponsors. Their interests are not the same. In the end you must ask yourself: who are you really making this game for, anyway?


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