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Content Prophets: Addictive Advertisements

The line between entertainment and advertisement has been blurring for years as the entertainment industry milks the cash cow called ad placement. Companies want their brands associated with an enjoyable and memorable experience, which is part of the logic behind sponsorships of real-world events — the free concert in the park brought to you by your favorite lawn care provider, or a prominently placed soda can in a blockbuster movie. And as the Web awakens from the infancy of ad banners, these real-world methods are invading cyberspace, and finding a perfect outlet in online games.

Instead of a static banner or even a blinking rich media spectacle strewn about the periphery of a user's focus on a Web page, why not associate an entire fun and addictive experience with a brand? In 2000, notes Chad Richard, executive producer at Shockwave.com, traditional brands began looking to the Web in a different way than the dot-coms before them. "We have found that a lot of traditional consumer brands purely want brand association with entertainment and are not necessarily looking for click-throughs," he says.

Richard believes games are more appealing to sponsors than linear animation because they will bring the user back again and again. "You've got someone who is entertaining themselves, so they are very open to receiving positive messages at that time," he says.

Is It An Ad, Or Entertainment?

WildTangent, a technology company whose developing environment enables the creation of rich browser-based games, has developed several branded games in partnership with Zone.com, MSN's gaming site. "The game is the advertisement," says Doug Wallace, senior director of business development at WildTangent.

One such game is RadioShack RC Riot, named after a line of remote controlled cars, and featured on Zone.com, as well as on RadioShack's own site. The game offers a choice of several RC Riot brand cars, complete with the price and a "buy online" button, to race around a couple of tracks. The tournament track is in a RadioShack store, where logos and boxes of RC Riot cars are prominently displayed. RadioShack not only uses the game to entice the player into purchasing an RC car, but also gathers valuable marketing information when users register to win prizes from Zone.com.

Michael Mott, business development manager at Zone.com, agrees that this model is working well. "The sponsors are happy when you blend the game and the opportunity to send that message with the traffic that we have, the very active user base we have, and our relationship with MSN," Mott says.

Some sponsorships have taken the form of well-placed logos and Flash interstitials between game rounds, as in Shockwave's first multi-player game, Ink Link, sponsored by Hewlett-Packard and launched in December 2000.

As in WildTangent's branded games, Shockwave has also found that ads presented in the background can be effective, yet more subtle and ubiquitous than Flash interstitials or logo-laden borders. When touring around the 3D bar room of Shockwave's Real Pool, for instance, users can check out the Jack Daniels poster on the wall, as well as the logo stained in the felt of the table.

But as well-integrated into the content as this branding appears, Shockwave has the flexibility to swap sponsorships in and out as contracts begin and end. For instance, when Jack Daniels' contract ended in December, Shockwave was able to remove the liquor ads and replace them with ambiguous movie posters, without having to recreate the entire game. Using dart server technology from DoubleClick, Richard says they can embed assets within the Shockwave game, allowing them to turn on or switch sponsorship messages simply by going to a Web page and choosing the asset.

With this technology Shockwave can change a sponsor's message, or change sponsors without having to send the game through a QA process over again. "The games are complex software products — changing just one thing can cause problems and lots of testing, and basically that equates to time and money," says Richard.

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