Do you have a video game that needs promoting? Well, Conan O’Brien is your man. He’s quite good. The best, even.
Conan’s late night talk show has a segment called “Clueless Gamer.” In it, he checks out new titles and cracks jokes. The segment is popular, racking up millions of views on YouTube and bringing many of the games featured to a wider audience. People who don’t watch Conan have seen the clips on YouTube.
Sometimes, Conan goes the extra mile, like he did earlier this week when he not only devoted the show’s opening to Fallout 4, but then did a Clueless Gamer segment decked out in a Vault 111 jumpsuit. This guy must really, really love Fallout.
Actually, we have no idea if he loves the game. But he does love promoting it.
At the end of the segment, the following flashed on the screen:
[Image: Team Coco]
As Recode reported back in 2014, Conan offers coverage for pay. “These Clueless Gamer segments are not serious reviews nor endorsements—they are strictly comedic sketches,” a show spokesman told Recode. Thus, he added, “We do not believe sponsorship identification is needed.” The spokesman was clear that these are “not reviews” but “comedy bits.”
Kotaku has posted a bunch (I mean, holy shit, A BUNCH) of “Clueless Gamer” skits. We don’t post all of them, but over the months, plenty of them have proved amusing or clever enough for us to share them with our readers.
This is why Conan O’Brien is the best video game marketer on Earth. His clips are good enough that people not only want to watch them, but media outlets—even ones that don’t usually cover video games— want to publish them, because they know people want to watch them. See? Told you, he’s good. And you know what, while we’ve stopped posting as many Clueless Gamer sketches as we used to, we still might post a new one in the future. Who knows!
[GIF via Team Coco]
The fact that these games appear on the show doesn’t necessarily mean the developers or publishers shelled out. Conan spokesperson Drew Shane tells Kotaku that out of the twenty-three Clueless Gamer skits seven of them were paid integrations: Tomb Raider, Hitman, Kinect Star Wars, Michael Phelps: Push The Limit, Outlast, Minecraft and Fallout 4. So, yes, that means Conan apparently chose to review Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 5. Out of his—or his producer’s—own free will. Damn.
(Note that Mojang business developer Daniel Kaplan previously told Recode that it did not pay for Minecraft coverage, but the game was part of a “Presented by AT&T” series of Xbox 360 reviews for Conan.)
How much does the show get for paid appearances? Shane would not disclose how much Conan charges for coverage, but the number Recode published for Outlast’s appearance was $35,000. Apparently, that was on the low end.
I don’t think video game sites should charge for review coverage—or any coverage, for that matter. Neither does anyone else at Kotaku. But O’Brien is a talk show host. Talk shows are mostly comprised of plug after plug, ad after ad. Celebrities appear on talk shows to promote their latest album/TV show/movie/book/whatever. The wheeling and dealing required to set up these sorts of appearances must be second nature to Conan by now. It’s how that world works, and that’s fine. Conan’s show isn’t powered by smiles and sunshine (yet), so he’s doing what he thinks is necessary to get eyeballs on his program in an age when segments need to live on long after they’ve aired, spreading through cyberspace.
O’Brien would be the first to tell you his “reviews” are meaningless. In 2013, CNN’s Anderson Cooper interviewed the host about the Clueless Gamer segments. “I’m not a gamer,” the late night host said. “I’m terrible at video games. I don’t even like video games. So, at one point we thought it’d be funny if I reviewed them. It’s just the audacity of it.” That’s the gag. The tension that arises when somebody who isn’t into video games reviews them is what makes the best Clueless Gamer segments work.
[GIF via Team Coco]
O’Brien said after the first few Clueless Gamers, game companies started asking him to review their titles, offering exclusives. That also makes sense. Conan has a huge following. Game companies want that kind of publicity. O’Brien promotes the games in funny, highly watchable ways. O’Brien said he agreed, telling them he “didn’t want to be held back.” That means Conan wants to crack the kind of jokes he wants to, and won’t let game companies dictate his humor. For example, the talk show host recalled how Square Enix asked him to be, in his own words, “less pervy” towards Lara Croft.
“Some of these are integrations,” O’Brien told Anderson Cooper. “We make it very clear up front that’s not going to affect what I say.” According to O’Brien, game companies tell him they don’t care, as long as he covers their games.
The sponsored pieces are clearly marked on the show’s website. The YouTube versions, which have millions of views, are less clearly marked. The clips themselves are not marked, but there is a disclosure in the description.
[GIF via Team Coco]
This is why Recode pointed out that it’s not always clear which games Conan is just playing for comedy fodder and which ones he’s being paid to play—something that could run afoul of the FTC. With Fallout 4, it was easy to tell. With some of the earlier Clueless Gamers, it’s less so. That’s a problem, albeit one easily solved by better and more consistent disclosure.
I like commercials just fine. I’m not going to hate on ads. Every game trailer Kotaku posts is an ad. But you know that. I know that. We don’t need to point that out, because that, at its most basic level, is the trailer’s M.O. (And, of course, the creators didn’t then pay us to run the trailer. We probably ran it because it was cool, or ridiculous, or even because we thought something about it was newsworthy.)
Talk show hosts like O’Brien must play to internet audiences as well as their own viewers if they want to survive against the seemingly endless selection of television channels, streaming services, YouTube personalities, and video websites. Competition is tougher than it’s ever been. Video game coverage gives easy, quick views.
[GIF via Team Coco]
As one who remembers covering video games before the mainstream media gave a toss about them, in one way, it’s satisfying to see Conan talking about them. Video games have won. (Fuck yeah!) It’s to the point that even celebrities who don’t like video games can make a successful schtick out of playing them on camera. Video games are just like movies, music, and books, and are worth showing on late night television. That’s terrific.
If you’d asked me ten years ago who the most successful celebrity video game promoter of 2015 would be, I never would have guessed it’d be Conan O’Brien. But the fact is, as modern video game marketers go, he’s the best.
Time to step it up, Fallon.
Top GIF via Team Coco
To contact the author of this post, write to bashcraftATkotaku.com or find him on Twitter@Brian_Ashcraft.