[Translate to Englisch:] Kopf einer Person vor einem großen Bildschirm
The Advertising Game

Among the latest TV series for teenagers, “Stranger Things” is one of the blockbusters. The young protagonists in this spooky tale wear Nike, drink Coca-Cola, stuff themselves with chips at Burger King – and in this way influence the consumer behaviour of an entire generation of fans. For large marketing departments, product placements are an obvious part of their toolkit. And now they have also discovered the gaming community. Professor Tobias Vogel, expert for consumer psychology at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences, is examining product placements in video games and their effect on us. In this interview for impact, he explains how a burger or a can of Coke can suddenly become irresistible.

Interview: Christina Janssen, 6.2.2023

impact: We’ve all seen it on TV: James Bond’s Aston Martin, the Apple computer in “The Big Bang Theory” and in the Netflix series “Stranger Things” there is loads of advertising for dozens of brands: Coca-Cola, Burger King, H&M, Nike, Kellogg’s... This used to be known as surreptitious advertising. What’s it called today?

Professor Tobias Vogel: Surreptitious advertising implies that it’s something forbidden. Meanwhile, there are certain rules and labelling requirements. That’s why we nowadays use a more neutral term: product placement.

impact: Big corporations have meanwhile also discovered the gaming scene as an advertising platform. What exactly do the companies hope to gain from this?

Vogel: Firstly, outreach, of course. Video games have long replaced classic media here. Their outreach is much greater than that of a feature film. In addition, there is what we in psychology call “exposure duration”. Take a film, for example “Superman – Man of Steel”. Although we’re presented with a new product advertisement every minute, for example a car, we don’t watch the film more than twice. That’s a total of three hours in which we’ve seen the product for at most three minutes. By contrast, in the case of “AAA games”, the blockbusters among the video games, we’re sometimes talking about several hundred hours of playing time.

impact: And the target group is young people?

Vogel: Not only. Video games are no longer a niche product for a young target group. We’re also seeing people who regularly play video games well into middle age.

impact: You too?

Vogel (laughs): No.

impact: No time, or…?

Vogel: No time. And apart from that, I lose interest in video games pretty quickly nowadays.

impact: How exactly are products placed in such games? Isn’t there a danger that blatant advertising will irritate users?

Vogel: It depends. Of course, the product must not disturb the player. It can even be part of the game’s storyline. Then gamers actively engage with the brand, which creates an emotional connection. And naturally the product must match the game’s setting. It makes a difference whether I’m playing a fantasy game or a racing game with cars.

impact: I can scarcely advertise Coca-Cola in a fantasy game...

Vogel: Precisely. But you could easily do it in a football game, where advertising is even desirable. If the football shirts or perimeter advertising I’m familiar with from the stadium are suddenly missing in the game, things no longer appear realistic. I’m then in an artificial world, and the game becomes less appealing. We also see this when cars are shown. You can try to conceal car brands in a TV programme, but then it seems fake. It looks strange when cars drive around that don’t exist.

impact: You’re examining this phenomenon from a scientific perspective. What’s the goal of your research?

Vogel: Firstly, we want to understand which psychological processes are taking place. Is product placement something that people consciously notice? And could they perhaps even resist it – the keyword here is consumer protection. Secondly, we’re looking at the general framework: When is product placement successful? And when isn’t it? So effectively we’re talking about two interest groups: the consumers and the advertisers. Both sides can benefit from this knowledge.

impact: How exactly can consumers benefit?

Vogel: Earlier on I mentioned labelling requirements. The problem in this area is that we’re often dealing with very intuitive legislation, i.e. with policy-making that is not evidence-based. For mandatory labelling to make sense, you first have to understand the underlying processes. Do people develop a more positive or a more negative attitude through their conscious perception of product placements? And how does this affect their purchasing behaviour?

impact: So the benefit would be that users would at least have a chance to critically question what they’re experiencing?

Vogel: In the first instance, yes. It’s a matter of finding out whether consumers would in theory be able to escape this kind of manipulation. Whether they’re then actually able to do so in practice is another question. That’s also a topic for education, youth social work, social work in schools, etc.

impact: Meaning it’s conceivable that I suddenly put six cans of Coca-Cola in my shopping trolley in the supermarket because of product placement, even though I would normally never buy it...?

Vogel: I wouldn’t rule it out, but it’s highly improbable. We see in our studies that it’s possible to influence a person’s attitude towards a brand more strongly if they’re initially neutral towards a product. If their attitude is negative from the start, that makes it more difficult. Perhaps – if you find the game really great in which the advertising is placed – it might be possible to change your attitude a bit, make it more ambivalent. But we wouldn’t expect that you, as a “Coke-negative” person, would buy six cans of it tomorrow.

impact: So I’m “Coke-negative”. You’re also following an experimental approach to study how we develop such attitudes. To do this, you sent your students to Mars. How did that come about?

Vogel: We wanted to find out how different emotional situations in a game influence how the player rates the products placed in them. Why? Because video games are emotional roller coasters: there are moments when I’m happy and moments when I’m so incredibly frustrated that I fly into a rage. And our question was: Do I rate a brand better or worse depending on the point in time when I spot it? Research on this has been conducted in the past in the form of surveys. But these were vague and only measured effects that participants could consciously report. For the unconscious effects, we needed an experimental setting, for which my ingenious colleague Moritz Ingendahl developed his own video game. It’s about using a serum stored on Mars to save Earth from a pandemic. We placed fictitious brands in the game – sometimes in negative, sometimes in positive situations. And then we evaluated how our test participants rated these brands. And whether this happened consciously or unconsciously. That’s what we needed Mars for.

impact: What did you discover?

Vogel: We saw very clearly that brands that are presented in a positive context, for example because the player is rewarded, are indeed rated better. Brands that pop up during a frustrating experience, by contrast, are rated worse. Even worse than brands that were not even in the game – what we call a rebound effect. What this means from a marketing perspective is that I’m paying for my brand to appear in a game, but in the worst-case scenario it might be rejected. We also found out that the conscious experience plays a key role. The effect is particularly strong when people consciously remember the scene with the product, when they know that this brand appeared just as they fell into that hole or when the box exploded in front of them. Although the effect also occurs when people don’t consciously remember the product, it is then far weaker.

impact: Is that a new finding?

Vogel: Showing it systematically like this is new.

impact: You call what you’ve just described “evaluative conditioning”. What exactly does that mean?

Vogel: It’s a phenomenon from basic research on attitude formation. The idea is that our attitude towards a person or thing can change through the co-occurrence of stimuli around us. You see a newsreader with war pictures in the background. This gives that person a negative connotation. It’s an approach we can partly use today to explain not only prejudices but also attitudes towards products.

impact: You’re talking here about mechanisms that are almost impossible to escape. In the US, political parties are now also exploiting this: for Barack Obama and Joe Biden’s election campaigns, political ads were placed in video games. Putin, the political party “Alternative for Germany” or the “Islamic State” could do the same, couldn’t they?

Vogel: In principle, anyone with the necessary budget can do it. It’s a fine line, of course: What is ethically acceptable here, and what isn’t? In some cases, such advertising content is even inserted by third-party providers, meaning that the game developers are then hardly able to control it.

impact: How do you, as a scientist, deal with this ethical aspect of your research field?

Vogel: You can use this knowledge to warn, protect, educate consumers. To teach them. But you can also use this knowledge to reach specific target groups. In the first instance, this is neither ethical nor unethical. What is important is that politics realises that labelling alone is insufficient.

impact: What’s your advice for young gamers?

Vogel: Being aware that games contain advertising and dealing actively with it are in any case helpful. Although this will not completely protect you from the effect because product placements of which you’re consciously aware tend to have a stronger effect. But awareness also forms the basis for resisting their influence: Okay, I find this brand appealing now because I saw it in the game. But ultimately, it’s perhaps not as good as it’s shown there. Today, we understand these mechanisms better. But I haven’t got a patent solution.

impact: Thank you very much for the interview.

Translation: Sharon Osanksi


Christina Janssen
Science Editor
University Communication
Tel.: +49.6151.16-30112
Email: christina.janssen@h-da.de