I think I can tell when ad people are joking. I tested that skill recently at an in-game advertising event. The people from Take Two saying a BioShock Big Daddy would be a great pitchman for Black and Decker? Joking.
The Ubisoft guy who preceded them? Maybe joking.
He was talking about smashing people into urinals in next February's Splinter Cell: Conviction. He was getting big laughs when he set up one of the game's interactive interrogation scenes by saying, "You might have several moments in the game [when] it's like a choose your own adventure, but it's choose your own torture." Chuckling and guffawing from the crowd. He was showing Sam Fisher bashing a guy into a urinal and noting that there was a deodorant ad next to that urinal.
"You will see a deodorant ad," he said.
You will be bashing a bad guy into porcelain.
And you will wonder, he said — joking? — "Is that the new Degree deodorant I want to buy?"
More laughter. And his kicker: "It's going to be very effective."
Credit the man, Jeffrey Dickstein, head of digital advertising at Ubisoft, for getting a reaction from a crowd of ad buyers. They were gathered in midtown Manhattan at a Lincoln Center theater space usually used for jazz performances. This wasn't the most game-savvy crowd, though they were there to be coaxed into buying ads for placement in the video games supporting Massive's in-game ad network. The buyers didn't seem to get the Big Daddy joke. They chuckled when descriptive ESRB ratings warnings appeared on a big screen, as if they'd never seen them before.
This was the second "Upfront" hosted by Massive, an attempt at an annual event.
I've attended both and look forward to, I guess, the fifth or sixth one. In theory, they'll get really good if they follow the model of more established media.
Upfronts for TV networks sound like wondrous things. NBC shows off its fall line-up to advertisers and does everything it can to dazzle its audience of prospective advertisers. They bring their stars on the stage. Maybe Conan O'Brien or Jay Leno does a stand-up routine.
Video games? Not quite there with the upfront yet. We're past the awkward first one from last December, when an Activision representative stood up at this press-invited event and blabbed the existence of Modern Warfare 2 and a new hands-free Tony Hawk.
At the second one, held earlier this month, the messaging was more disciplined. Straight-laced, you could say. As in when Dave Anderson, head of business development at Activision, talked about ad placement opportunities in Guitar Hero, described how new ad-showcasing camera angles were introduced into this year's DJ Hero, and mentioned something we may not have mentioned here on Kotaku yet, that Tony Hawk Ride is primarily targeted at 10-14 year-old boys. He also said that "I've wanted to be here since I was a small boy," assumedly referring to the jazz hall at Lincoln Center we were in, which was opened five years ago. Joking?
The Take Two people were the most entertaining. They threw free t-shirts to the seated ad folks. They aired a mock ESPN segment that showcased ad placement opportunities in the virtual arenas and fields of 2K Sports' hockey, basketball and baseball franchises. Their segment ended with the BioShock joke, which went over the heads of most of the people there.
The Massive folks, affected as they may be by some department cuts this year, can still cite some strong numbers. They've served 1000 ad campaigns in the last year and a half, an executive announced at the presentation. Massive research indicates that 63% of gamers recall the ads they've seen in games, a number Massive says is on the rise. People see in-game ads, and they send text messages the numbers the ads encourage them to. They visit product websites. They buy cars.
Massive is selling packages to these ad buyers. Advertise in the biggest games that third-party publishers have allowed to be in the Massive in-game-ad network. Or just advertise in the sports ones. Or be the only advertiser in an entire genre category. Or take over the entire Massive network for a day.
The Massive people and the game publisher people mostly say things that wouldn't horrify gamers. Even at a conference like this, in-game advertising doesn't sound like the mood-killer gamers have been wry that it could become.
The THQ exec talks about putting ads on the mat of a virtual UFC ring. The Blizzard person talks about keeping ads out of that company's games, relegating them to surrounding websites, log-in pages and the like.
Our Ubisoft man explains how the Splinter Cell team has generated heat maps to determine where players look in a level, and ensured that ad-placement locations are situated in those lines of sight — which might sound potentially irritating, but he's the one talking about making advertising in games as innovative as gameplay. And he's the one talking about selling deodorant to players as they make a bad guy tumble into a urinal.
Or was that part a joke?