Erin’s Blog

Subliminal Advertising, In-Game Advertising, and Product Placement: What’s the deal?

This is going to be a long one, guys. Be warned!


First of all, let’s clear some things up. Before I go on and on about what I think, I just want you all to know the written down definition difference between the three because, as far as my research goes, most people on the Internet use the terms interchangeably when they shouldn’t. Just adding to the confusion, people!


Subliminal Advertising: messages that are received subconsciously, below a person’s perceptual threshold, causing a desired response.


In-Game Advertising: refers to the use of computer and video games as a medium in which to deliver advertising.


Product Placement: 1) Visibly featuring branded products or brand names in a movie or television program. 2) Paid verbal or visual brand exposure in entertainment programming

Great, now that that’s out of the way, lemme start talkin’!

Subliminal advertising and messaging first became popular in 1957 when market researcher, James Vicary, claimed he increased the sales of Coca-Cola and popcorn in a movie theater by inserting into the theater’s film the phrases “Drink Coke” and “Eat popcorn” every five seconds, but only for a fraction of a second so people didn’t know they had seen it. This idea wowed the advertising world but because Vicary refused to disclose details of his study, people doubted him and the idea of subliminal marketing faded away. Then, in the 1970s, Wilson Bryan Key wrote a book entitled Subliminal Seductions: Ad Media’s Manipulation of a Not So Innocent America. Researchers dismissed the book since it lacked empirical evidence. Over time it has been concluded that subliminal messaging is not a viable marketing communications tool because there is absolutely no proof that it actually works. In 2000, however, an “accidental” (they claim it was an accident but…) subliminal ad ran and had to be removed from television. A commercial for Republican nominee George W. Bush had a brief discussion of the Democratic Party and the word “RATS” was briefly flashed. The producer said it was an accident from the cutting of a frame that included the word “bureaucrats” and that they were not attempting to use subliminal advertising. Accident? He was elected, after all. Coincidence?

In-game advertising is on the rise. In 2005, $56 million was spent on in-game advertising and Massive Incorporated, a company that deals with in-game advertising, estimates this amount to grow to $1.8 million by 2010. Although there has been gamer backlash against in-game advertising in the past, it hasn’t stopped advertisers from incorporating their brand names or their messages. In fact, Nielsen Media Research has announced a new video games ratings service called GamePlay Metrics to serve in-game advertisers. I guess it’s pretty serious.

Throughout my research I also found out there are a few different kinds of in-game advertising and not all of it is for the sole purpose of getting you off your butt and into a Footlocker. “Incidental in-game advertising” is incorporated into video games through billboard-like advertisements or blatant product placement in order to create a more realistic gaming environment. The gaming company has to get permission to use the logos, their use inside the game does not serve to raise awareness so they are technically not advertising; they’re just making the game more life-like. Many sports games include billboards around their playing fields to make the game experience more like what is seen in person or on television. A lot of games also include brand-name products as a status symbol within the game: the Grand Theft Auto series includes guns such as the ColtM1911, Micro Uzi, AK-47, and M16, all recognizable, and expensive, weaponry. Racing games often opt to use Lexus or Lamborghini to up their status as well.


Then there’s something called “dynamic in-game advertising.” This is used to create awareness and entice a player to buy, watch, or become interested in something. Growing Internet game activity has led to a growth of this type of advertising because the ads themselves can be altered by an agency for geographical regions, time of day, and more. Information about the ad can also be sent back from the player regarding advertisement performance or effectiveness. Data such as time viewing the ad, viewing angle, the type of ad it was, is all sent back to the agency and they can determine how to better suit their ads to their gamer clientelle. Games such as Second Life actually sell their virtual real estate to companies in order to advertise their name or, if they are a new company, get feedback on their prospective clients. In October 2008 a billboard ad was put into the game Burnout Paradise that featured Barack Obama and reminded gamers to go out and vote early. Electronic Arts, the game’s publisher, confirmed that the Obama campagin paid for the ad and that it marked the first time a US presidential candidate has used in-game advertising!

Researcher Michelle Nelson found that in-game advertising can be called effective because the gamer is “actively involved in the game and the products appear as a part of the background scenario. As long as they don’t interfere with the game, they will likely be considered simply ‘a part of the game.’” She also mentions that advertising via video games is successful by just looking at the numbers of people playing the games. “The potential reach for advertisers is enormous, with an estimated 145 million Americans admitting to playing games.” A 2005 Nielson study has actually found the in-game advertisements to be effective, resulting “in a 60 percent increase in awareness for a new product and that animated 3-D ads achieved twice the recall of static billboards.”

One gamer blogged  that advertisements within certain racing games are almost becoming subliminal messaging since they zoom by the player so quickly. Did I just see an ad for Puma or was that my imagination? Either way…I really want a track jacket…

Has product placement gone too far? Are viewers used to it? Is it, much like incidental in-game advertising, just there to make us feel more involved in the television show or movie we’re watching? I’m sure we all remember the 90s classic Wayne’s World and it’s mockery of product placement, but how does it work, and is it becoming too much?


One Washington Post article  writes that although product placement has been going on since the start of visual media it has gained in popularity in the past recent years “in part because TV networks are looking for more ways to make up for declining ad revenue and a rapidly fragmenting audience that is finding entertainment on the Internet and on mobile devices.” Media research firm PQ Media released a study in 2005 that found “64 percent of products placed in films or TV shows are not paid for, but rather arranged through some kind of barter in which the show provides exposure in exchange for products or services.”


One example of a company not starving for spotlight in movies and television shows is Apple. In Sex and the City what does Carrie Bradshaw do all of her work on, all the while having the logo prominently displayed?


In The Office, wasn’t it an iPod that boss Michael Scott got to wow his coworkers at the Christmas party? “It’s not an accident,” says Tim Bajarin, principal analyst at Creative Strategies, a high-tech research and consulting firm. “Apple was one of the first technology companies to hire someone in Lost Angeles to get Mac products prominently displayed in hot TV shows and movies…This is something Apple works at.”


Is it getting excessive? A USA Today article  explains that in order to “hype the [2006] fall TV season, CBS plastered pictures of its shows’ stars on postage stamps and across the insides of elevator doors. It laser-coated its eye logo on more than 35 million eggs, and carved the name of a new program…into a 40-acre Kansas cornfield.” The article suggests that “ad-zapping devices—and a decrease in consumer attention spans—have created doubts about the effectiveness of traditional TV, radio and print ads.” In order to counter this, marketers are becoming more invasive and more in the face of their viewers. “Advertising is so ubiquitous that it’s turning people off,” Rance Crain, editor-in-chief of Advertising Age said. “It’s desensitizing people to the message.”


Some suggest marketing is getting too loud, too in your face, citing that, according to PQ Media, marketers spent 71% more–$941 million—to integrate brands into TV shows in 2005 versus 2004.


So, what’s the deal? What’s it all about? Are you aggravated by all this promotion? Do you find it sneaky or more about creating a real-life environment in non-real-life entertainment? Seriously guys, I’ve given you the info, now gimme your thoughts!


PS: Here’s one article that discusses product placement objections. Take a look and let me know what your thoughts are!

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Obama on “The Tonight Show”! « Erin’s Blog pingbacked on 12 years, 8 months ago


  1. * beckyflo says:

    Hey Erin,
    Nice post–I especially liked the “rats” commercial from Bush! I sort of like seeing products in the movies and shows I watch. Even though I know the purpose is to “sell” them to me, it’s much better than the old days when they would purposely hide the name of the cereal or whatever. That always bothered me!

    I heard on the radio this morning about how a Steinway piano had pulled off a good one by being THE piano played during the inauguration. Of course, STEINWAY was displayed prominently throughout the performance!


    | Reply Posted 12 years, 10 months ago
    • * funningham4 says:

      You know, I have to agree with you. When I watch reruns of Seinfeld or Friends and there are products in the background that are so obvious to the viewer, but part of the name is covered up (“Grape N–s” rather than “Grape Nuts”) it’s distracting. I’m sure the producers don’t intend for the viewer to be looking in the background, but once they’re spotted, they’re so annoying. I also hated when show characters would be drinking something out of a bottle and the label would be covered. That’s even more in your face considering the reasonably still-recognizable label is right there. I always like movies when they use actual products. It makes the film seem more realistic. For instance, in the movie Knocked Up actor Jason Segel says something along the lines of “We have to go, Spider-Man 3 starts in 15 minutes.” They didn’t cover it up and say “the movie,” they used a real title. That makes me feel like the people I’m watching are more like me and I wind up liking them all the more!

      | Reply Posted 12 years, 10 months ago
  2. I think that most people have become desinsitized to a lot of it since we are so heavily bombarded with the blatant stuff (read “numb”). I’d rather see some of this advertising that some of the incredibly dumb, brain dead commercials that these guys throw at us.

    | Reply Posted 12 years, 10 months ago
  3. * Placement says:

    Advertising is also placed in different media to reach different audiences. Placement

    | Reply Posted 12 years, 10 months ago
  4. * document projects team says:

    Nice post, I personally don’t mind IGA, it keeps prices of games down and will continue to do so and does add a good sense of realism to games.

    With the incease of online gaming and internet connectivity aswell companies have been able to test run products. One hotel chain even had a replica of their new hotel made in new life 2 so they could get feedback before it opened in the real world.

    so all in all i welcome in game advertising as long as it doesnt get to in your face to the point it completely ruins the gaming experiance.

    | Reply Posted 12 years, 10 months ago

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