Product Placement Ineffective in Violent Video Games

Even if you get into a gunfight in a virtual fast-food restaurant, you're not likely to remember it was a McDonald's.
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Even if you get into a gunfight in a virtual fast-food restaurant, you're not likely to remember it was a McDonald's.
(Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

(Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

In spite of the many studies that suggest they increase users' aggression and hostility, violent video games continue to be extremely popular, and thus extremely profitable. Clearly, they're going to continue to proliferate as long as companies are making so much money off of them.

Given that reality, a newly published study provides some interesting information. It finds one source of revenue—in-game advertisements—accomplish their intended purpose much more effectively when they're placed in non-violent, rather than violent, games.

"Killing characters may be fun for players," writes a research team led by Robert Lull of the University of Pennsylvania and Brad Bushman of Ohio State University, "but may be bad for business."

In the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture, the researchers describe two studies that provide evidence of this dynamic. In the first, 154 college students spent 30 minutes playing the video game The Getaway.

This game "allows players to drive through the virtual environment, exit their car, and shoot or attack others," they write. "The game is set in London, and a variety of brands appear on storefront, on cars, or on billboards." Participants were exposed to an average of 10.6 such brands, most if not all of which were peripheral to the action.

Advertisers may not care that much about the social impact of the products they associate themselves with, but they are generally averse to throwing away money.

Before starting the game, approximately half of the participants "were told to kill as many people as possible, by running them over, shooting them, or beating them to death," the researchers note. The others were instructed "to drive as fast as possible while trying to avoid pedestrians."

After their half hour of virtual motoring, all were asked to list "all brands they recalled seeing in the game." They were presented with 32 brands, and asked whether each had appeared in the game. (In actuality, 16 of them had.)

"Participants who played the game violently both recalled and recognized fewer brands than participants who played the game nonviolently," the researchers report. The difference in the recall test was huge, with those who did not engage in virtual violence recalling 51 percent more brands than those who did.

The second study featured 102 college students who spent 30 minutes playing Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Half were instructed to "run over as many pedestrians as possible," while the others were told to "take in the sights of virtual Las Vegas while carefully avoiding hitting any pedestrians."

In this game, brands were placed on the taxis driven by the participants, so they were "constantly visible in the foreground."

Only 32 participants—20 who played the game non-violently, and 11 who played it violently—recalled seeing any brands. And of those, "only 11 recalled actual brands shown in the game."

"Participants who played the video game violently were less likely to recognize the advertised brand among three foils than participants who played the video game nonviolently," Lull and his colleagues add.

The results make perfect sense from an evolutionary perspective. "People are hard-wired to pay attention to violence," the researchers note. When their attention is riveted on "violent, emotionally arousing cues in video games, they seem to pay less attention to product placement."

"It can be argued," Lull and his colleagues conclude, "that advertisers (who pay for product placement in violent games) are not getting the same return on investment that they would when advertising in games that do not demonstrate brand memory impairments."

So this may be a case where doing the right thing aligns with doing the right thing in a business sense. Advertisers may not care that much about the social impact of the products they associate themselves with, but they are generally averse to throwing away money.

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Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.

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