Marketers Stick With TV Shows, not Their Video-Game Spinoffs

Millions Spent Aligning Brands With Series, but Relationship Often Ends There

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LOS ANGELES -- In "Desperate Housewives," the women of Wisteria Lane drive Nissans, Volvos, Aston Martins and have shilled for Buick. But in the video-game version of the hit ABC drama, Chrysler is the carmaker of choice.
Marketers whose products are omnipresent in TV shows -- think Coke and 'American Idol' -- have stayed out of the video-game versions of those shows. But Buena Vista Games' success integrating Unilever brands into the 'Desperate Housewives' game has prompted talks of a sequel.

And if that seems odd, imagine this: Computer-generated versions of Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson don't sip from Coca-Cola cups in an upcoming "American Idol" game from Konami, and Jack Bauer doesn't thwart threats from behind the wheel of a Ford or Toyota in 2K Games' "24: The Game." And brands are completely absent from the interactive version of "The Apprentice" from Havas Interactive.

At a time when product placement in video games is all the rage, marketers that have spent millions to align themselves with popular TV shows have opted out of the series' ancillary properties, including games.

Major missed opportunity

It could prove to be a major missed opportunity for advertisers looking for new ways to connect with the much-sought-after 18- to 35-year-olds who are spending more time playing their PlayStations, Xboxes and PCs than watching their TVs.

There are more than 132 million teen and adult gamers in the U.S., according to Boston research firm Yankee Group. And it's not unusual for them to spend more than 30 to 40 hours on a game.

"That's a lot of time interacting with a product," said Mitch Davis, CEO of in-game advertising firm Massive Inc. "It's most definitely a missed opportunity for brands not to be part of the game."

It's not as if marketers aren't buying their way into games. Advertisers spent $56 million last year on in-game ads and product placement, according to Yankee Group, a number that's expected to grow to $730 million by 2010. They've just been focusing their buys on sports and racing franchises rather than TV-show games.

The delay can be excused for several reasons:

  • Standard licensing deals need to change: In-game advertising is still a virtually new arena for both Hollywood and Madison Avenue, so the inclusion of a video game in a traditional licensing agreement was pretty much unheard of just five years ago. It didn't occur to most marketers that they could even be part of a game until recently. Players on both sides are still fairly unfamiliar with brokering such deals, with most arrangements still handled separately from traditional TV negotiations.

  • Timing: The same issues that affect whether a marketer ties in with a movie apply to games. Advertisers have to commit 12 to 18 months before a game's release, forcing them to figure out which of their products will hit the market at the same time the games do and how much they're willing to spend to back those releases.

  • It's easy to play it safe: Marketers still would rather spend their money on TV than on other forms of media. And there's the usual wait-and-see approach. Brand managers want to see if a game based on a particular show will even appeal to audiences. Other games based on TV shows haven't proved major sellers. And "Desperate Housewives" didn't even have a game until this year -- the show's third season -- giving advertisers little reason to back the title's first release.

    Other advertisers avoid games entirely. When it comes to "American Idol," Coke has confined its marketing efforts to the integration in the show and some promotions with Wal-Mart, for example. It hasn't been involved with the show's tour, CDs or DVDs, or the games. It declined to discuss why.

    Taking a risk with 'Desperate Housewives'

    But advertisers were willing to take a risk with the "Desperate Housewives" game, probably because it was produced by Buena Vista Games, which is owned by the Walt Disney Co., which produces the TV show. Buena Vista Games worked with ABC's sales team in New York to approach the show's advertisers with integration opportunities.
    Marketers whose products are omnipresent in TV shows -- think Coke and 'American Idol' -- have stayed out of the video-game versions of those shows. But Buena Vista Games' success integrating Unilever brands into the 'Desperate Housewives' game has prompted talks of a sequel.

    "We gave all the advertisers the right of first refusal," said Barbara Gleason, senior brand manager for "Desperate Housewives: The Game" at Buena Vista Games.

    A deal couldn't be reached in with Nissan, which has helped promote the series' DVD and whose cars are seen on the show, and Aston Martin was considered too high-end for the game, Ms. Gleason said. Buena Vista Games had tried to work out deals for the auto brands to co-market the game, but the long lead time prevented Nissan and Aston Martin from being able to promote the property.

    Sears, Unilever and Chrysler signed on to place their products throughout the game. Chrysler cars are shown parked in driveways on Wisteria Lane or moving through the neighborhood. Unilever products such as All, Caress, Bertoli, Slim-Fast and Dove are shown in kitchens, bathrooms and other settings. Sears' Kenmore-branded washers and dryers also are placed. A mailbox players must frequently check offers printable coupons for products that gamers can take to stores and redeem.

    In the game, players portray a new housewife on Wisteria Lane who wakes up with amnesia and must interact with the regular characters and locations on the show to figure out who she is.

    Powering the in-game ad engine

    Massive is powering the game's in-game advertising engine, allowing Chrysler to change its cars from 2006 to 2007 models over time, change which coupons are offered every two weeks and customize them for certain regions of the country, and change the ads that run on TVs and radios in the virtual homes.

    All of that activity can be tracked, giving advertisers "a lot of detailed information," Ms. Gleason said, to gauge their return on investment. "It's a great way for advertisers to track what's working and not," she added.

    The slow move of advertisers from TV to games has happened elsewhere before -- namely with sports games.

    "Five years ago, there weren't any partners who were taking their association with [a sports] league and extending it into the video game," said Julie Shumaker, who brokered in-game ad deals while at Electronic Arts and is now handling such deals at in-game ad shop Double Fusion as VP-sales.

    Different audience for sports TV, games

    But that quickly changed when the sports leagues and their sponsors began to realize that games are courting a completely different audience than those who watch sports on TV. For example, the typical viewer of a Major League Baseball game is 42 years old. The average age of players of an MLB-licensed video game is 26, Ms. Shumaker said.

    That same type of change is expected to affect games based on TV shows, as marketers realize games will be looked at as an important function of their overall ROI around a series.

    New licensing contracts are including in-game advertising and figuring out ahead of time how those deals will get sold. And they're able to buy in at a still-reasonable price: Pure product placements in a game can cost from six figures to seven figures, depending on the amount of exposure. And a buy on an in-game network run by a Massive or Double Fusion is comparable to a cable-TV ad buy.

    "More and more advertisers are getting interested in this space," said Jonathan Epstein, president-CEO of Double Fusion. "In-game advertising is in the news now. There wasn't a business there a couple years ago. We'll see more games with the same sponsors. You'll see more of these kinds of deals come to light. TV is a form of content that really stands to benefit from the injection of advertising revenues."

    Of course, it will help if the "Desperate Housewives" and "24" games sell.

    Buena Vista Games executives say they've already been approached by marketers to produce a sequel to the "Desperate Housewives" game, which was released Oct. 5, but have yet to decide whether to greenlight the project. They want to collect more sales data first.

    Either way, marketers are interested. And for good reason.

    "It's a defined media, a measurable media, a high-usage media, and it's delivering a great demographic," Mr. Davis said. "You've got the option of passive television watching or interactive gaming where people are interacting with your product. It's a no-brainer."
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