With thousands of video games coming out every year, standing out from the crowd can be a major challenge for studios and publishers. While there’s always temptation to go over the top with a crazy PR stunt, there’s a lot of risk involved. Sure, PR stunts can make your game memorable, but it may be memorable for the wrong reasons. Writing exclusively for TheGamingEconomy, Simon Spaull (pictured below), MD EMEA, AppLovin, takes a look back at some of the biggest gaming PR stunt wins and fails, to see what we can learn from them.
Game Over: Gaming PR’s biggest losers
God of War II
God of War II lets gamers play as Kratos, a Spartan warrior who was tricked into killing his own wife and daughter by his former master, the Greek God, Ares. Kratos sets off on a mission for revenge and the game gets a bit... gory, as you can imagine. Sony decided to bring the look and feel of Ancient Greece to the God of War launch party with fire jugglers, snakes, and characters from the game. But the company went too far when it decided to bring a freshly slaughtered goat to the dinner table. Guests were served 'warm entrails' from the goat, which was actually meat soup made from a traditional Greek recipe. While the soup may have featured fake entrails, the dead goat was real. As you could probably have guessed, people were not happy.
Sony apologised for the event and recalled the 80,000 copies of the Official UK PlayStation Magazine that showed the goat and launch party. The company went on to clarify that no food was ever served from the dead goat, which was returned to a butcher after the party, and that its magazine chose photos of the event that were "unrepresentative of the wider event”.
Whether the backlash was an overreaction or not, it shows that big companies like Sony still fail with branding and PR. It’s important for an entire organisation, from editors to event planners, to know how to present and protect the brand from controversy.
ShadowMan 2econd Coming
ShadowMan 2econd Coming developer Acclaim Entertainment thought it would be a good idea to ask families of the deceased to use their loved ones’ headstones to advertise. A spokeswoman for Acclaim doubled down on the PR stunt by saying, “It’s a dark, gory type of game and we thought it was appropriate to raise advertising to a new level.”
People and organisations disagreed, including the Church of England, which said there was no way it would allow the company to use graveyards for advertising purposes. Beyond the church’s rebuke, it was legally questionable whether headstones could be used for advertising purposes in the first place. According to Matthew Carrington, chairman of the outdoor Advertising Association at the time, “any attempt to advertise on headstones would require planning permission from local authorities whether the land was public or private.”
It’s good to test the boundaries of marketing, but there are some lines that just shouldn’t be crossed.
In 2011, developer THQ released hundreds of red balloons in downtown San Francisco during the annual Game Developers Conference to promote their new game, Homefront. The balloons confused bystanders and developers alike. The balloons didn’t have any logos on them – what were they promoting? Who released them? While some balloons had promotional postcards attached, many did not.
The balloons were later revealed to be soy-based biodegradable balloons, but it was too late – the public backlash had already taken over Twitter. Environmentally conscious San Franciscans immediately criticised THQ for the stunt, worrying that it would pose a threat to wildlife like birds and fish. The company was later fined USD$7,000 for the stunt by Bay Area water control officials, who were forced to send out a crew to clean up the balloons.
The most important takeaway for marketers is that THQ’s stunt was ineffective at promoting the game. It was unclear what the point of the red balloons was, and they were only loosely relevant to the game’s story about a united and communist Korea taking over the the Pacific coast of the United States. If your PR stunt makes people scratch their heads and you have to explain that it won’t have deadly environmental effects, you should probably rethink your strategy.
To promote its hack-and-slash game Dante’s Inferno, EA tried to get in front of anticipated backlash of releasing a game about damnation by staging a protest against its own game. The company hired people to stand outside of the E3 conference in Los Angeles holding protest signs that said things like “EA = Electronic Anti-Christ” and that players would burn in hell.
As you can probably guess, that didn’t go over too well with people. Some blasted EA for painting Christians as “priggish, thin-skinned fun-killers”. Catholic video gamer Andy Kirchoff branded the stunt as a flop, saying: “Instead of engaging in a shamelessly anti-Christian stunt to promote your poor excuse of a product, maybe you ought to work on making this game, you know, something better than a blatant God of War rip-off.”
While the stunt certainly gathered attention, it stereotyped an entire group of people. Instead of getting ahead of the controversy, EA ended up creating it.
1 Up: Gaming PR’s biggest wins
When Rovio wanted to break into the Asian market, it had to come up with a clever way to market Angry Birds. The team decided to partner with Finnish airline Finnair for a full marketing takeover. The two companies put Angry Birds livery on one of the company’s Airbus A340 planes. The crew wore Angry Birds-themed aprons and handed out Angry Birds menus and plush toys. They also hosted a gaming competition during the last four hours of its Helsinki to Singapore flight, where the winner was named 'Angry Birds Asian Challenge' champion.
This PR stunt was a win for both companies that wanted to grow their presence in Asia. The wholesome stunt rewarded fans and got people talking about the game.
Virtua Tennis 2
Speaking of birds in marketing, Acclaim used the winged animals to promote its game Virtua Tennis 2. The company painted the Virtua Tennis logo on the wings of homing pigeons and trained them to fly into Wimbledon during the matches, and press even went to watch the pigeons train. Wimbledon officials, however, weren’t so pleased – they announced they were training hawks to hunt and kill the pigeons. Commentators couldn’t stop talking about it, making Virtua Tennis 2 the most talked about topic (other than tennis).
Acclaim’s PR stunt succeeded in getting everyone talking about its game by taking advantage of one of the biggest sporting events of the year. And because the stunt was highly targeted at tennis fans, it brought a lot of attention to their game.
To promote its Disney Infinity game, Disney brought Marvel characters to life by projecting them in action onto various buildings around London using augmented reality. Characters included Spiderman, Thor, and Ironman. But what stole the show was a hologram of the Hulk struggling to hold up Tower Bridge at night.
The projected characters were a clever way to place digital characters into the real world, allowing passersby to see them as if they existed real life. The video shows the extent to which Disney went to set up the takeover of London Streets.
This successful PR stunt also shows the power of AR for marketing purposes as more and more phones begin supporting the technology.
Electronic Arts made a memorable splash when it hired tanks to drive around Waterloo Station in Central London to work as 'tanksis', a wordplay on 'taxis'. Commuters were greeted by tanks picking them up to go to work instead of black London cabs. The tanks featured the Battlefield 3 logo on the front and displayed license plates for road-legal use. Tank drivers in military uniform helped lucky commuters onto the tank for a free ride to work. This PR stunt was a fun and memorable way to promote a game without being offensive or misunderstood.
These wins and fails show both the power and risks of PR stunts. A successful PR stunt can become a thing of legend. While all of the PR stunts we talked about managed to grab people’s attention, the ones that backfired always failed to foresee how the stunt could be misinterpreted. A successful PR stunt requires extensive planning but, most importantly, forethought on how the stunt will be perceived by its intended and (perhaps more importantly) its unintended audiences. Pushing the envelope for the sake of shock value may garner attention for your game, but it may be the wrong kind.