[30 September 2009]
PopMatters Multimedia Editor
Yeah, I know. Sex sells.
Indeed, when I teach advertising analysis as an exercise in practicing interpretation and evaluating rhetorical techniques in my freshmen composition classes, I often have students that astutely point out this phenomenon. I do like to point out that selling a product via sex, though, can be a relatively more complex process than that two word phrase might otherwise imply. Once we begin comparing advertisements targeted at different types of audiences (heterosexual men, heterosexual women, homosexual men, homosexual women), it generally becomes apparent that this sales technique depends on some interestingly different expectations of how those audiences want their sex served up that may reveal some differences between expectations along gender lines or that might reveal some stereotypes that we have about sexuality and gender.
Which brings me to the weirdly sexed up and, what appears to me to be, the overly simplistic and badly marketed Evony campaign. I should note that a number of other folks have spilled a fair amount of virtual ink on the topic of Evony and its marketing. I suppose that the fact that Evony has generated as much conversation about its ads as it has does indicate that at least the ads themselves have been successful in getting the game some attention and that it is probably largely related to its extremely straightforward and audacious “sex sells” mentality. That the game has had much less virtual ink spilled about the game itself, however, may indicate the campaign’s relative lack of success at getting folks to actually play the game. The advertising may be selling itself rather than the product.
I should mention, though, too, that a lot of this attention has drawn some charges against Evony that go beyond mere marketing issues. In one of the rare reviews about the gameplay itself over at the Massively Multiplayer Online Gaming news site, Ark’s Ark, a columnist called Arkenor has observed that Evonycontains in game text that bears a suspicious similarity to the text of games from the Civilization series. Additionally, Arkenor notes that a piece of software called iEvony that is downloadable from the Evony web site “just wants all your instant messenger login details so it can send messages to people on your behalf.” He suggests that this is part of Evony‘s additional layers of less overt viral marketing. Nic, a writer for The Big Critique web site, makes similar claims that “this game ripped off its graphics and descriptions from other games [and] includes new software that raises privacy issues.”
With that bit of warning concerning the potentially less obvious aspects of the possible shadiness of Evony aside, though, I am frankly still just baffled by the way that Evony has been sold to gamers. As the information that Arkenor’s article suggests, Evony is a simulation game in the tradition of Civilization, a fairly hardcore economic management and combat simulation that has no clear connection beyond a medieval theme (and that theme does not even emerge in all of its ads anyway) to the game itself.
What I am trying to get at here is that while a lot of games try to sell themselves on sexual content, those games usually also contain some element of sexual content. I just published a piece last week about “The Bodies of Lara Croft and Rubi Malone” that in part defended the representations of these female protagonists of the Tomb Raider series and Wet. However, I would not ever claim that either Lara or Rubi are not highly sexualized characters in games that in part are selling themselves on that sexuality. Indeed, as I observed in my recent review of Wet, the game is in part interested in sexuality as it emerges in the exploitation cinema stylistics that it apes. If Wet contains some sexy images, well, it is game that is in part about the topic of sex. However, unlike Tomb Raider or Wet, Evony is a less than sexy game. It is a sim. And it is certainly not some sexy sim.
In that regard, I really don’t understand how the PR minds that are pushing Evony expect to maintain a player base for this game when it simply isn’t offering what it’s advertising. Sure, it will garner attention and some hardcore sim players like sex, too (hard to believe I know), but those looking for sexual content are going to look away pretty quickly from this game, which ostensibly intends to make money on in game purchases made to enhance this otherwise freeware style of game. When the money gets made through the play of the game, you better hope that the user is actually there for the game.
Now, the marketing of the game initially was considerably less sexually fixated. Instead, early ads seemed to play up the medieval themes of the game with an image of a knight brandishing a sword and the like. Frankly, if that wasn’t doing the trick for luring in players either, I can understand why. The image is not especially eye catching (it’s a fairly generic bit of art), but this early iteration of the ad campaign shows the same slightly off target marketing of the current one. The single image of the knight might imply an action-oriented game moreso than a simulation or strategy game to a gamer, so any player that might click on the ad might similarly be disappointed with the game that they are actually getting and might not hang on long enough to drop some virtual coin on it. It isn’t the clearest representation of the product. It touches on theme, but theme isn’t the only selling point for a game.
It also begs the question of where ad space is being purchased in any case for these games. If banners for Evony are showing up on sites frequented by strategy and simulation fans, the confusion of the imagery with what kind of game is being sold might be less problematic than it is on a site with a broader gaming audience. Gamers get signs like medieval themes and swords, they may not associate that with simulation, though. As I understand it, Google has added features that aid advertisers (and maybe consumers) by targeting ads towards Google users’ search interests, but the Evony campaign hearkens back to the mystification of advertisers during the 1990s about how to use the web to advertise. During that era, many advertisers seemed to think that getting any ad space on the kinds of sites with the biggest hit counts during that time period, largely sites about video games or that might feature pictures of Cindy Margolis was a good idea, even though, the 18 to 35 male, computer nerd demographic that frequented those sites might not be the best group to market your fabric softener or gardening tools to (selling Cheetos might have been a more sensible bet). I also maintain that just because you are targeting gamers, that you might realize that there are more specific venues to target the right kinds and that if you do know that your banners will be showing up on a general gaming site that making your message about what your game is much less ambiguous helps a lot.
In other words as an advertiser, you might do well to attempt to play up the nature of your game to an audience that actually wants to play that kind of game. I promise that there is a whole audience out there that really wants to play a good economic sim with interesting combat options and tricky decisions about resource management. You might just want to tell them that your game contains those elements. You could also probably throw some sex into the mix if the game contains it, but curiously enough, people feel ripped off when they don’t get what they seemed to have been promised. In the end, the more specifically targeted audience (that doesn’t feel misled) is the most likely group to spend some money on your game and tell their friends about it. All this might seem really obvious: be truthful about what you are advertising, sell to the right audience, etc. But recall how “obvious” the idea that “sex sells” alone is supposed to be.
Finally, what advertisers might need to learn is that gamers might best be understood by what their name implies, those who like to play games. As the legendary flop, BMX XXX succeeded in demonstrating, just slapping some pornography on top of a game about BMX tricks is not a sure fire way to get product flying off the shelves. Gamers interested in BMX tricks might first and foremost be more interested in playing a really well designed game in the genre. Not that gamers don’t like sex, but maybe it should make sense to include sexuality when it is appropriate and, well, sensible (bikes and strippers, wha?). Additionally, it might even be worth considering how the audience (be they male or female, straight or gay) might respond to sexual imagery in terms of the plot, themes, and gameplay itself and not simply assume that sex is the sole reason that anything can or will ever be sold to the public. Quite honestly when I look at the ads for Evony, they look more like a satire on sex in advertising than anything else. Frankly, a game that satirized advertising sounds more interesting to me and might justify an advertising campaign this absurd.
Maybe I’m wrong, though, and Evony‘s marketing campaign has led to its publishers and developers making money hand over fist. If so, though, why do they look so desperate to me?