And Now: A Confusing Word from Our Sponsors

For me, the fall season is television season. Due to football season and the return of the scant few broadcast television shows I still watch, most of my live television time is concentrated over the span of a few months. When it comes time to bust out the antenna (you guessed it: I’m one of those cut-the-cable, streaming-site techno hippies), it’s not just a return to shows and sports. It’s a return to advertising. I only half-jokingly tell people that this is the time of year when I get back in touch with the consumer landscape. Which deodorant has the quirkiest commercial? What does my choice in a luxury sedan say about me? Do I need to hit my doctor up for any new drugs? And of course: what are the video games I need to buy?

I expected this year to be a heavy year for video game advertisement. Fall is blockbuster season in general and this is a new console launch year, so the game companies have plenty to advertise. While I have seen quite a few video game commercials, they haven’t been what I expected.

While I’m not crazy about it, this trailer for Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag seems in line with the series and traditional blockbuster game themes:

It’s the classic story of a supposed underdog who also happens to be the most skilled killer on the planet. A historical power fantasy that lets you stick it to the man by becoming a pirate. Will you do as you’re told or take your fate into your own hands and stab, sail, and steal as you wish? It’s a time-honored tradition that appeals to the angsty adolescent and nerdy office worker that has for so long been the gamer stereotype. Not very unique, but it seems understandable.

This trailer featuring Drake’s song “Started from the Bottom” is a lot weirder to me:

On the most obvious level, I find it strange to see such a contemporary song paired with a game that goes to great lengths to preserve its dedication to its historical settings as well as its fourth wall. For as silly as the Assassin’s Creed series is, it’s deadly serious about its sprawling fictional universe. At least NBA 2K‘s use of rap falls in line with basketball’s historical connection to hip hop. On a more serious note, the song is cut in such a way to avoid Drake’s frequent use of the words “fucking” and “nigga” which is awkward on multiple levels. Not only did Ubisoft choose a song that they knew they would have to be sanitized for broadcast, it chose an autobiographical song about a multiracial guy trying to succeed in modern show business as the backdrop to a game about white pirates slashing other white pirates during a time of legalized race-based slavery. This seems discordant as best.

Similarly jarring are the Xbox ads I keep seeing on Hulu. It’s not strange that they would advertise video game consoles on Hulu, but I was surprised by which console they were pushing, the Xbox 360. Less than one month away from a brand new version, Microsoft is still trying to capture those last few households that never picked up a 360. Of course, they advertise it like a lifestyle choice: kinect, plenty of fun party and exercise games, console that is also your media hub, etc. It’s almost as if they took the copy from the Xbox One press releases and switched out the visuals.

The way you react to this probably says something about your general levels of optimism and pessimism. Having a cheap console to play the occasional game on and watch Netflix is a perfectly reasonable use case. On the downside, a 4 GB hard drive will only hold a handful of games and the Xbox 360 Kinect is the half-baked predecessor to the Xbox One’s updated version. You can’t blame Microsoft for trying to get rid of old inventory, but the fact that I am seeing Xbox 360 commercials in the weeks before a massively important console launch was extremely surprising.

It hasn’t been a big shock to be inundated by Call of Duty commercials during every halftime break. You’d expect commercials for the next version of the most popular game in America the same way that you’d expect ads for the next iPhone. But what if the phone itself never made an appearance in those ads? In the lead up to the game’s release, the commercials for Call of Duty: Ghosts have shed footage of the game in favor of a variety of people talking about it.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, as the commercials cast is diverse, even if they are annoying. It’s more of a commentary on just how ubiquitous the series has become. Activision clearly feels that you don’t need to showcase the game itself. You just need to remind people how fun it is to spark interest in picking it back up. It’s a tactic that they’ve been building up over the years. The first Black Ops game was announced to the public via those ads in which normal people and celebrities use military weapons in a kind of real world multiplayer arena. Now even the trappings of military equipment are gone in favor of showing how much normal people love the game. I suppose the cynic might point out that perhaps not having to even show screenshots of your new game is commentary on how little it has changed since the last version and that the concept of normalized military violence in a civil society is disturbing, but where’s the fun in that? Those people made the game sound great and that’s the point: to continue the momentum of the most high-production social game ever made.

There have been other games ads I’ve seen pop up around the channels, but aside from an unholy alliance between Taco Bell and the PlayStation 4, these three examples have been the ones that have been the most notable and made the biggest impression. They’re a strange trio: one ad whose marketing clashes with the game, one for an outdated console, and one for a game that is never shown. My annual return to television ad exposure suggests I’m either hopelessly out of touch or that the gaming industry has spiraled off into some kind of focus group tested madness. It’s probably both.