As native advertising continues to gain momentum, advertisers and publishers have started looking at video games as another platform on which to put their new ads, which “fit in” with their surroundings and thus create less of a jolt to the experience that users are engaged in. And, as it has with this type of product placement in movies and television shows for years, the FTC is taking a “hands-off” approach to it.
Although the high-tech video games and consoles are new, the idea of putting advertising into entertainment is not new at all and is actually quite common. Television programs and movies have been doing it for decades, skirting an FTC law that advertising content should be clearly designated to make sure that viewers are aware that what they’re seeing and/or hearing has been paid for.
A look at the way Asia handles product placement (as true a form of native advertising as you’ll find) will show you that, on the whole, the United States doesn’t even come close to their level of sponsorship yet. In Japan for example they have entire romantic comedy shows where a specific product plays a key role in the plot, tying up everything about the show into a neat little bow. In 1998, the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan film You’ve Got Mail was one of the first (and only) times that a product had been positioned as part of the actual plot of a movie, but still most native advertising of this kind in the U.S. isn’t close to the scale it is in Asia.
As with TV shows, the logic that the FTC uses when it comes to product placement rules is due to the fact that, in these games, there are no objective claims that are made as to the performance, attributes or capabilities of the product being advertised, but they need to be there for realism.
Like most movies, video games are a fictionalized experience in which the program and the user interact. Game players are expected to “suspend their disbelief” just like they do when watching a film or a TV show. Game developers use product placement to make money, of course, but also to give the video game a realistic component that helps the player to suspend their disbelief even further.
As an example, let’s say that you’re playing a videogame and your character in the game passes a McBongles hamburger restaurant. We all know that the restaurant is actually called McDonald’s and, knowing that, the belief suspension is momentarily jarred and the dramatic purpose and user experience negatively affected (Would you like fries with your McBong, sir?).
It’s for this reason, and not much else, that the FTC has had their hands off policy about product placement/native advertising in movies and television for so long and will continue that tradition with in-game native advertising into the future.
In fact, a definition more suited to gaming and native advertising comes from Wikipedia. Their definition states that “in which the advertiser attempts to gain attention by providing content in the context of the user’s experience [whose] format match both the form and function of the user experience in which it is placed.”
In effect, what Wikipedia is saying and the FTC is acknowledging by default is that products and brands, as well as advertising, are a part of our daily lives. We expect brands and products that we know to be there and, when they’re not, things don’t seem “right.” It’s for this reason that now, and in the future, native advertising in video games won’t be labeled.