In-game advertising: Mind games

Video games have always boasted big audiences and been a proven draw and now brands are demonstrating they too can achieve interaction with clever in-game advertising.

News that the maker of the game Candy Crush Saga is to list on the US stock market, accompanied by a print campaign for latest title Farm Heroes Saga, has underlined what many marketers already knew – games are big business.

More than 1.2 billion people globally play video games, according to research by Newzoo, while the Internet Advertising Bureau estimates that in the UK it is around 33 million. In 2013, the global mobile games market grew by 35 per cent to $12.3bn. Games players are no longer confined to a certain age, gender or social group.

The number of brands choosing to advertise in the thousands of game titles created every year – whether console, casual, mobile or PC – has mushroomed as marketers have become more aware of their audience reach. Games have proven ability to hook their players in for hours, as demonstrated by the phenomenon of Flappy Bird, whose Vietnamese developer withdrew it because he was so uncomfortable with its popularity. But the question remains, can advertisers achieve the same level of engagement?

A spy agency might not be the first place to turn to for proof, but Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) has shown it is possible. GCHQ’s work fighting terrorism, drug trafficking and other serious crime has all the hallmarks of a best-selling game and it has been using in-game advertising to promote career opportunities for seven years. As well as posting in-game recruitment ads, it has created a more integrated campaign on Microsoft’s Xbox Live, using streamed video banners to engage with players as they become more absorbed in the action.

A spokesperson for GCHQ says the organisation analyses data relating to the skills of a player to assess their suitability for a job. “If someone has to sit through a five-minute explanation of a game with a small amount of interaction before moving to the next stage, this can highlight good attention and listening skills. If they choose to skip this and get to the next level, it could highlight the opposite. So different areas of a game can emphasise particular skill-sets for the job in question. It is part of the game so the player is unaware a skill is being evaluated.”

Allianz’s advertising within the game World Golf Tour enables it to target golf fans in digital media

Games enable GCHQ to recruit the technology and security experts it struggles to find, as they are likely to respond to a recruitment drive if ads are clever enough to grab their attention while playing. “It becomes the hook to get them to think and question what we do and how they could be part of that,” says the spokesperson.

The organisation knows how passionate gamers are about the titles they spend hours enjoying, and that any branded content must not spoil or interrupt the gamer’s experience. Get the experience right when advertising in games and there are some fascinating opportunities available to more conventional brands too. However, it might require taking some risks.

Jason Kingsley, chairman of the games trade body TIGA, says some marketers need to become less protective of their brand and more sympathetic to the context in which is it being shown. “In racing games, vehicles crash, but some car manufacturers do not want to see their model get smashed up,” he says. “But for the gamer, the more awesome and aspirational the car brand, the more fun it is to crash it. This can be counter-intuitive for some marketers.”

Another example is energy drink Red Bull advertising within a game featuring comic-book law enforcement character Judge Dredd, produced by Kingsley’s company Rebellion.

“Even though sugar and stimulants are ‘illegal’ in Judge Dredd’s Mega City, we embedded Red Bull in the Dredd v Death game, talking about how it was being illegally shipped into the city. Some brands would baulk at the idea of being linked to something illegal,” says Kingsley.

An advertiser’s relationship with a gaming audience is also strengthened if the brand becomes an enabler, helping a player to earn more lives, or to acquire additional equipment or ammunition in order to reach a higher level. Alternatively, a gamer might be asked to watch a free video to gain more credits that can be used to buy in-game goods.

Players also appreciate contextual advertising that adds realism if a game is set in a location where they would expect to see it in the real world – a shopping centre, a race track or a football stadium. Most game titles based around extreme sports, for example, would envy the opportunity to incorporate Red Bull’s branding because of the authenticity it adds to the game.

One brand from a traditional industry that is embracing in-game advertising is insurer Swiftcover, part of AXA Insurance.

AXA Direct & Partnerships senior marketing executive Clare Wood says people are in a different frame of mind when they are playing gaming apps on platforms such as Facebook compared to when they are watching TV. She argues that they create a “unique situation” that is “fun and rewarding whilst also ensuring high levels of brand recall and awareness”.

Swiftcover has previously placed virtual billboard ads in games such as Pro Evolution Soccer, Guitar Hero and Tiger Woods PGA Tour, and most recently has worked with ‘virtual currency’ specialist SupersonicAds and agency Arena Media to develop a driving mini-game inside other Facebook apps where players were rewarded for playing with game currency.

“Players who need help [reaching the next level] or purchasing an in-game item welcome a brand’s assistance,” says Wood.

It can be difficult for advertisers to judge when is the most effective moment within a game to try and connect with a player.


Marketers have learned over the years not to have any advertising within the first few minutes of play, and that the more success a gamer is having when playing, the better their mood. For instance, if they have completed a level and are feeling pleased with their achievement, they might be more open to seeing advertising.

Brand owners are using these principles in attempting to create TV-style commercial breaks inside games, in close collaboration with game publishers. The theory is that by creating natural stops in the game, brand messages will be viewed as less intrusive, and that if someone has been playing a game for a long time, they will welcome a commercial break.

The proof will always be in the execution, however. It is likely to work best where the game is already designed around natural cliff-hanger moments between levels, and where gamers expect to be playing the particular title.

While it can be tricky, companies are also trying to link the real-world brand experience with in-game advertising.

For example, financial services provider Allianz has had a global partnership in place since 2009 with St Andrews Links Trust, which manages the Old Course where golf’s Open Championship is played. Allianz supports the sport at all levels and in different markets, including the 2015 Solheim Cup in Germany and the Allianz Championship in Florida. It has extended its involvement by advertising within World Golf Tour (WGT), an online golf game.

“WGT is an opportunity to combine traditional digital advertising with engagement and interaction among a very specific target group in a clever way,” says global sponsoring manager Tobias Gruenewald. “The game offers the chance to directly target golf fans in digital media and it helps us to drive digital traffic to our own platforms such as the Allianz Golf Facebook page.”

He says players do not regard advertising as an annoyance if a brand is seen as a natural part of the existing game. “Our real-world partnership with St Andrews Links means there is a natural connection to an Allianz-sponsored virtual tournament on the virtual Old Course. The players shouldn’t be interrupted, especially if you are careful about asking for personal information or making product offers, which we avoided during our first virtual tournament.”

Return on investment from in-game advertising is also highly measurable, says Gruenewald. “If your original objective was simply audience reach, you can track how many people played your tournament and how many received the newsletter. If your original objective was to drive people to your own corporate platforms, you can track that easily too.”

Channel 4 is using its own branded games to drive people to its television shows including The Million Pound Drop and The Bank Job, and to find contestants.

Multi-platform commissioning editor Jody Smith says ‘second screen’ games, where people can play along on a mobile device or computer during a programme, is a priority area this year. The growth in mobile devices has fuelled the popularity of these games with around 10 per cent of The Million Pound Drop viewers playing online, with an average dwell time of about 40 minutes.

“Games you can play while you watch television are appealing and they allow third-party advertisers to benefit from that engagement,” says Smith. “When the programme goes to an ad break, players see the ad for that brand in the game.”

He says that players will be receptive if the advertising is relevant and they feel a brand is giving something to them, rather than them having to give up their time. “One good example is a Nokia sponsorship of the drama Misfits,” says Smith. “We had an online game where players could explore an environment from that week’s episode and piece together new bits of the story.”

Weekly downloads and prizes were included in the scene each week via Nokia’s music platform and the brand received sign-ups and greater brand awareness. There was also a trail of clues in the game, which led to tickets to a party co-hosted by Nokia and Misfits.

Chair of the IAB Games Council James Salins says everyone wins if the advertising is engaging, because persuading people to pay for games is difficult. He claims that less than 5 per cent of players will over money to play.

Much of the growth in gamer numbers has come from apps and about 80% of free apps are games. The reality for publishers is that if they are to make money, they need creative advertising ideas that do not annoy their customers. “In-game advertising is growing but not as fast as it should be, considering the huge numbers of different consumers who now play, including the number of women,” says Salins.

He cites the exception of Unilever’s Dove brand, which used the medium last year to engage with its core female audience of 30- to 64-year-olds. 

A Dove-branded Bubble Buster game targeted female Facebook users who play titles such as Bubble Witch Saga and Farmville. When people completed the branded game they were shown the latest ad and invited to purchase Dove products. 

As brands follow their consumers away from traditional media and on to mobile devices, it is almost inevitable that at some point they will have to think about interacting with them through games, since they account for a growing portion of the time spent on those devices. There are huge potential benefits to be had from being seen in a medium that people consume for hours, but an advertiser must be creative in its approach and help, not hinder, each player’s gaming experience.

Oscar Diele
Chief marketing officer
Spil Games


Gaming, today, is a mainstream activity. According to statistics by Newzoo, the number of people globally who play games has topped 1.2 billion – 17 per cent of the world population.

Online gaming offers a wide spread of target audience. Brand owners often find surprising the male to female ratio of gamers is split quite evenly at 54 per cent to 46 per cent. And this is fairly consistent across the younger demographics.

But it is not difficult to work out why casual gaming is experiencing a phenomenal rise. Games such as Angry Birds and Candy Crush appeal to all generations and can be played anywhere, at any time. They offer an injection of ‘me time’ in people’s busy days.

So what are the benefits to advertisers? With the increase in touch devices, people are turning to online gaming sites where they can play free games on different devices. For brands, the opportunity is obvious: if your target audience is here, then you should be too.

Online gaming sites offer advertisers many of the qualities that they want, particularly with advertising budgets shifting heavily towards online video, and with brands looking for the most effective place to run these ads.

Not only does online gaming offer a broad consumer base, but also an engaged audience. At Spil Games, we see around 180 million monthly users across our platforms, with average playing times of 30 to 40 minutes per visit. Compare this with 15 minutes per visit for YouTube and around five minutes for traditional news sites, gaming has the edge.

This length of time onsite is crucial because for video ads to be effective they need long- form content, similar to TV – few people will watch a 15 to 30 second ad when they are only on a site for around five minutes. The longer the dwell time, the better the environment for digital video ads.

Online gaming exists in a parallel universe to TV in many ways; the content is diverse, long-form and targeted to different types of audiences. However, it adds a new dimension when it comes to targeting.

The data analysis that can be run on people playing online games, means audience profiling can be refined to a degree that TV could only dream of. This leads to more relevant ads being presented to players and ultimately, a more rewarding experience for all parties. Digital video is where the wind is blowing and these ads need a home.

Download Spil Games’ white paper about the state of online gaming here

Bookworm Games

Engaging with consumers using games is not something exclusively for large brands. Independent book publisher Table Thirteen Books is one small company using an online game to drive customers to its website.

Owner James Harris has created the shooting game Book Attack and is promoting it via Twitter and Facebook. Players must shoot books out of the sky to save the planet, and the user with the highest score each month wins a prize. When people click through to the publisher’s website to play the game they see the full list of book titles available to buy.

“The game is one way to get people to our website,” says Harris, who also writes fiction under the pen name EP Rose.

“Do gamers read books? We believe they do. If they are amused by the theme of the game featuring the Evil Book Worm Of Doom, we know that they will like the genre of books we publish. Having something engaging like a game to share with friends through social media is a great way to boost sales of something as traditional as books.”

He admits that player numbers since the game’s launch last Christmas have been small, but he is hopeful that a social media marketing campaign planned for this year will push up numbers and, ultimately, book sales.

Case study: Plumbee

Even games companies are advertising in games, with social casino company Plumbee promoting its products in a number of titles.

These include in developer Kiloo’s endless running game Subway Surfers, where players caught applying graffiti to railway property are chased by a policeman and grab gold coins as they go.

Plumbee is a start-up based in Shoreditch, east London, and has worked with mobile marketing agency Fetch to advertise its own casino games in other titles. Last December, multi-platform entertainment giant Endemol invested $13m in the company.

Marketing director Samer Ragheb says the player demographic for fast-paced simulation games like Subway Surfers overlaps perfectly with the online casino audience. “Before choosing which games to advertise in, we look at the behaviour of our target customer. We know they are keener on casual games than on strategy games,” says Ragheb. “The aim is to acquire new customers and we work with our agencies and games developers to agree how visible our branding should be within any app.”

Plumbee also has a joint venture with leading online gambling company Unibet, called ‘Bonza Gaming’. The joint venture was behind Bonza Slots, one of the first real-money casino games on Facebook.



There is one comment at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. Jana Zejbech 30 Aug 2023

    This article highlights the growing trend of in-game advertising, where brands are finding innovative ways to engage with the vast audiences of video games. Just like games themselves draw players, brands are now using clever strategies to interact with gamers within their favorite virtual worlds. If you’re considering tapping into this exciting avenue of marketing, it’s advisable to hire skilled game developers who can seamlessly integrate your brand message into the gaming experience.

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