Ad of the Day: Call of Duty: Black Ops II

72andsunny blurs the line between war and entertainment in an audacious new campaign

The link between war-themed video games and the living, breathing military is an uneasy one. War is not entertainment, after all, and packaging it as such is always hazardous and requires a deft touch. If your game or ad isn't enough like real war, then you're seen as trivializing or sanitizing combat (as in Jonah Hill and Sam Worthington's goofy ads for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3). If it's too much like real war, you're being insensitive to soldiers and their families (see EA's Medal of Honor, which let you play as a Taliban fighter).

Which brings us to 72andsunny's new work for Activision's Call of Duty: Black Ops II. Launched this week, it's a bold, even audacious campaign that doesn't seek to negotiate the line between war and gaming so much as obliterate it.

The two-minute, animated reveal trailer, created with the Ant Farm, is pretty standard stuff, showing futuristic battle scenes in an apocalyptic city under siege. Most notable for Black Ops fans, it's narrated by Sgt. Frank Woods, who didn't die in the first game after all—he's back to deliver a grim, cautionary voiceover from his wheelchair. The more remarkable, and controversial, piece of content is 72andsunny's companion spot, done in a documentary style, exploring the future of weaponry and the possibility, mirrored in the game, of advanced war technology falling into the wrong hands.

The two-minute "documentary" (it's not really a documentary but an ad, branded at the end with the game's logo) stars none other than Oliver North, who describes, in sobering tones, the ever more sophisticated weapons systems being deployed in modern warfare—and the fears inherent in such escalation. "There's going to come a time when this technology is going to catch up with us," North says ominously, speaking as though to an interviewer. "I have a nightmare scenario that a hacker breaks into our system that controls satellites, UAVs, even the launch of missiles. Consider what it would be like to have friendly fire from U.S. weapons overhead. … I don't worry about a guy that wants to hijack a plane. I worry about the guy that wants to hijack all the planes." (P.W. Singer, author and "future war expert," in a supporting role in the video, adds his two cents: "What if terrorists could get their hands on this?")

Both spots end with the tagline: "The future is black."

The docu-style spot is truly brazen. Here's a notorious military man talking about the frightening future of warfare in a spot that's impressively news-like—yet is completely designed to build drama for an elaborate fiction. The real world and the fantasy world seamlessly combine. There is no difference, it seems, between real war and entertainment war—or at least, none worth fretting over. North's concerns about the real world, and its real good guys and bad guys, may be relevant and true, but in the end, he's become a character himself. He almost explicitly echoes Sgt. Woods, who says in the reveal trailer, with maybe a bit more panache: "What happens when the enemy steals the keys, and the things they built to keep us safe are turned against us?"

In a way, it's refreshing to see a gaming campaign so directly acknowledge that the vicarious thrill of fake war is directly based on pretending to experience the real thing. In gaming, war is entertainment—it's just not polite to say so. This may be liberating. On the other hand, the blurring of the lines can be troubling, too. The next time Ollie North is on CNN, you might pause a little longer than usual before choosing to believe him or not.