A Popular Pitchman’s Next Step: Videogame Fame

Kmart Corp. found pop-culture lightning in a bottle with last fall’s funky-dancing Joe Boxer campaign. The underwear-clad dervish (aka actor Vaughn Lowery) was such a hit with the public—even appearing on The Tonight Show and the E! network—that TBWA\Chiat\Day, New York, brought him back for a holiday-themed sequel in December. Now the agency hopes to extend Joe Boxer’s appeal further—not in another TV spot but in an Internet videogame.

Kmart has put the gyrating pitchman in Boxer Boogie Breakdown, created by interactive game developer Ya Ya in Los Angeles and available to consumers on Kmart’s Web site. The game, in which users control the moves of an animated dancer, adopts some of Lowery’s signature steps, including the “puppy dog,” “spazz” and “touchdown.”

It’s one of the latest entertainment-marketing forays into a burgeoning industry.

According to the Interactive Digital Software Association, as many as 60 percent of Americans over age 6 play videogames. Countering a common assumption that most players are teenage boys, the association’s figures show the average player’s age is 28 and that 43 percent are women. Last year, software and computer game sales grew 8 percent to nearly $7 billion, and they show no signs of slowing.

“It’s an industry as big as first-run movies, and it is growing intensely fast,” said Rishad Tobaccowala, president of Starcom MediaVest Group IP, the agency’s new-media division. The agency sees so much potential in the category that media director Tim Harris is now primarily focused on the gaming arena.

“Anything that has been a powerful communications device sooner or later is colonized by marketers,” said Tobaccowala of the agency’s desire to focus on the sector.

For Kmart, the decision to develop an “advergame” was easy. Its target teen demographic for the Joe Boxer line spends a lot of time online, generally has a short attention span and enjoys the viral qualities of advergames, said Steve Feuling, svp of marketing for the Troy, Mich., retailer. “I’ve been interested in advergaming for some time, and we were looking for the right vehicle to capitalize on it,” he said. “It works perfectly with the [campaign].”

Creating a game that features advertising characters is only one means of marketing via videogaming. Videogame maker Electronic Arts, which has a sales team that pitches product-placement opportunities to companies, has featured real products in its games for at least seven years as a way to simulate a realistic experience, said company representative Trudy Muller.

Hummer, Mini Cooper, Chevrolet and Audi have negotiated product placement for Midtown Madness 3, which will be released in May for Microsoft’s Xbox system. Meanwhile, McDonald’s and Intel paid more than $1 million each to be integral parts of Sims Online, according to the game’s maker, Electronic Arts.

“We thought this would be a great opportunity to integrate our line in a real-life [simulation],” said Marta Hasler, director of co-marketing for Intel in Santa Clara, Calif. “It’s something we’re looking at more and more.”

“It’s the secret garden,” said Ellen Ratchye-Foster, a trend analyst for Fallon. “Anyone who buys these games devotes weeks and weeks to getting through their levels.”

The simplest, quickest and cheapest way to incorporate a brand name in a videogame is through an online advergame like Kmart’s Boxer Boogie Breakdown.

“The distinction is customization versus product placement,” said Keith Ferrazzi, CEO of Ya Ya, which has also created an advergame for DaimlerChrysler. An advergame can be customized for game play lasting as short as a minute or as long as a half-hour, depending on the target demographic’s predilections, he added.

One reason Kmart did not consider videogame product placement, Feuling said, is that developing a console-based game can take up to two years. An advergame can be created in three to six months, according to Ferrazzi.

Marketers in the gaming universe face challenges similar to those in other entertainment marketing areas, particularly in divining the difference between irritating interruption and effective embedded content. In a fledgling industry, it’s hard to know where to draw that line, said David Cohen, interactive media director at Universal McCann in New York.

“The challenge is going from gratuitous product placement to something that’s meaningful,” he said.

The McDonald’s and Intel deals with Sims Online, which allows players to eat at the fast-food restaurant or buy a branded computer to move ahead in the game, made sense because they added verisimilitude, said Ratchye-Foster. “They’re a part of everyday life,” she said.

“It’s about consumption,” said Neil Patel, principal of entertainment-marketing consultancy Cabana Group. “If you alienate consumers, you should not be doing it.”

But if successful, the payoff is deeper interaction with brands than simple product placement in television or films, Patel said. “Videogames have high repeatability—you see [the placement] again and again.”

“We have to figure out the value equation of how to best position clients in the gaming arena,” said Tobaccowala. As technology becomes more prevalent and online linking of gaming consoles and product updates become more common, the industry is likely to move more quickly, giving marketers a better chance to target more people in smarter ways, he said.

“We’re reaching the ‘perfect heaven,’ ” he said, “of lots of people, lots of technology and culture all coming together at the same time.”