Virtual marketing: Just “be-cars” …



Being old enough to have seen the change over the years, I’ve always been a little fascinated with how branded products continue to make increased inroads into video productions. First, it was TV series. Back “in the day” it was said that “Dragnet” was one of the first to enter this realm when Ford Motor Co. cut a deal with some of the production crew. Next thing you know, Sgt. Joe Friday [Jack Webb] and Officer Bill Gannon [Harry Morgan] are rollin’ around Los Angeles in a Ford patrol car [unmarked usually]. Over the years, this progressed to the various cereals that “Seinfeld” kept in his cabinet – and so forth.

Then there were movies. One I wrote about as a reporter was the groundbreaking move that FedEx allowed in “Castaway” when Tom Hanks portrayed a FedEx employee marooned on an island [along with Wilson the volleyball] after one of FedEx’s MD-11 cargo planes violently plunged into the South Pacific Ocean during a thunderstorm. The fact that a major company willingly allowed its brand to be used in a negative fashion was a first for the industry – but one that FedEx officials said was overcome by Hanks’ positive portrayal as a “model” FedEx employee. Had it been any actor other than Hanks, they said, the company and CEO Fred Smith probably would not have allowed it to happen.

Which brings us to the present – and video games. We all know about the controversy caused by likenesses to actual collegiate athletes in games such as EA Sports’ NCAA Football and Basketball titles – and legal action pursued by former amateur players. So far, most of those have failed, but professional players still are pursuing legal action involving Madden NFL 09 and likenesses allegedly used without permission involving depictions of players from famous teams of yore.

Coming full circle, we now have more automakers – this time Chrysler and Mercedes-Benz – using video games as a vehicle [so to speak] to hawk their products. With Chrysler, it’s a feature using “Call of Duty” to highlight its latest Jeep Wrangler, while Mercedes is borrowing “Sim City” to showcase its “environmental credentials.”

Then there’s one of my favorites – “Forza Motorsport 4” [along with “Gran Turismo 5”] – which let you drive pretty much any brand, make, model, and color of car on the planet [except oddly, the black Ford Explorer SUV I happen to drive for real]. Once again, Ford [among others] is a player in this and the supposition is if you’ll drive it in a game, you’re more likely to drive it “for reals” off the lot.

I don’t know about y’all, but I don’t think “Forza” has a section where you get to load firewood into the back of your “dream SUV” – and having driven the 1978ish Chevrolet Camaro in Forza, it definitely doesn’t handle the way my real-life ‘78 Camaro did back in my undergrad days [more sluggish than the real thing]. I suppose “virtual marketing” [what else would you call it] is only going to become more pervasive – but I wonder how effective it will prove in the long-term if it continues to be all “looks” and little substance.


— Bill W. Hornaday


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