Soft Placement

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Ubisoft ups its game with an integrated approach to product placement.

The market for in-game advertising has been heating up over the last few years, ever since Electronic Arts signed McDonald's and Intel to multimillion dollar product placement campaigns in the online version of The Sims. But, for the most part, video games remain an underutilized advertising vehicle. Companies such as Ubisoft, though, have been particularly innovative in their in-game advertising strategies.

Ubisoft's first major push into in-game advertising came courtesy of a product promotion deal with Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications, in which lead character Sam Fisher communicates with his superiors via a P900 smart phone and snaps photos of suspects on his T637 camera phone. As Ubisoft Strategic Sales Manager Jeffrey Dickstein explains, the deal was not so much a product placement as it was an integration. To that end, he continues, there are different levels of product placement. "Certain brands don't necessarily have a large budget but still want to explore the space, so we utilize a low-impact billboard, for example. The next step is a strategically placed billboard that players must pass to complete a mission. From there, a brand can be integrated into the plotline or the game's hero can physically interact with a brand."

Beyond basic levels of advertising, there also exist two different forms of placements. For dynamic ad placements, Dickstein and his team work closely with a third-party ad-serving vendor to identify where billboard ads can be placed. The development teams then collaborate with the third-party vendor to integrate textures into the game's code. "When users are playing on an Internet-connected device such as a PC or Xbox, the third party serves ads into the pre-identified textures," explains Dickstein. "In other words, players may walk by a billboard and see a Coke ad, but the next time they pass, it could be a Chrysler ad." Ubisoft also can determine exactly how the ads should run. For instance, says Dickstein, "If we want a Times Square scene, we can change the ads continuously in front of players' eyes. But if the location is an office building with a poster placement, the brand will change less frequently."

The second form of product integration, dubbed hard-code placement, works across all platforms. Dickstein and his team work with advertisers in advance to identify their core message and how to apply it to an appropriate video game. The messaging and preapproved artwork then is deeply integrated into the code of the game. "A hard-coded placement needs to be considered in the early development stages (as early as writing the storyline), because it's incorporated into the gameplay itself," says Dickstein. A recent example of hard-coded placement appears in CSI: 3 Dimensions of Murder, in which a character fakes her death and steals her sister's Visa credit card, but is revealed to be alive when Visa fraud protection services uncover suspicious spending on the account.

From Visa's end, the video game market made perfect sense. "If you're still advertising the same way you were 10 years ago, you aren't reaching your audience," says Jon Raj, vice president of advertising and emerging platforms at Visa. But, he admits, gaming does pose a challenge in that many popular games are not necessarily in keeping with Visa's brand. "In-game advertising wasn't really what we were looking for, but being an integral part of a plotline is something that engages our target audience," says Raj, who adds that it's a risky venture because gamers will reject both the brand and the game if they sense something isn't authentic.

"Our overall goal is to add realism to the game and enhance gamer experience," emphasizes Dickstein. "It wouldn't make sense to incorporate product placements in a title such as Prince of Persia, but most of our games are set in the present day, so we can integrate the latest gadgets and trends."

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