Critical Intel

Critical Intel
Activision, Documentaries Are Not Ads: An Open Letter

Robert Rath | 8 May 2014 12:01
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Dear Activision,

We need to talk about your Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare advertising.

No, not the one featuring Kevin Spacey and hover bikes. I have no problem with that one. I'm referring to the documentary short "Superpower for Hire" that you produced in association with Vice and the advertising agency 72andSunny.

"Superpower for Hire" is now the second documentary trailer you've made - the first being "The Future is Black" for Call of Duty: Black Ops II - and while I let that one go, I feel compelled to comment now that it's a trend. I had my issues with "The Future is Black" as well - mostly the unsourced scare quotes and use of Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North without explaining his history with the Iran-Contra scandal - but compared to "Superpower for Hire," it looks positively responsible.

You see, while "The Future Is Black" is advertising masquerading as a documentary, "Superpower for Hire" is advertising masquerading as journalism. This is a dangerous line to cross - particularly because whoever created this product filled it with distortions, misrepresentation by omission and embarrassing factual errors.

First let's discuss why advertising via journalism crosses a line.

I could be facetious here, and suggest that journalism and advertising are opposing forces. Journalism's goal, theoretically, is to tell truths and inform the public - while advertising does exactly the opposite. But let's face it; journalism and ads have coexisted in the same space for quite awhile. It's been several centuries since you could open a newspaper without seeing an ad for men's shoes. It doesn't escape my sense of irony that I myself am writing this for an ad-supported website. However, as a journalist you must be very, very clear as to what role advertising and sponsorship plays in your writing, and work to avoid influence in order to uphold ethical standards. And when you directly partner with a journalistic entity to produce advertising, it's very important that all parties involved - from the ad agency, to the journalist, to the interviewees and the audience - are aware that this is not straight journalism.

For example, David Sanger, the chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times appears in your documentary. According to statements he made to the Poynter Institute, Vice never informed him that they intended to use the footage in a video game ad - he was under the impression it was a documentary about private military corporations. (And indeed, "Superpower for Hire" - though currently not on the Vice website - is apparently a cross-promotion for a larger Vice investigation concerning PMCs.)

This isn't the first time Vice has pulled this trick with branded game content either. In 2012 they produced a documentary about Chicago violence prevention group Cure Violence, who try to stop violent reprisals with conflict mediation. Vice published the documentary on a website called Eye for an Eye, which collected stories on revenge to promote Dishonored.

No one at Cure Violence knew that the piece was intended as branded content. Vice ultimately removed the video.

Vice's breach of trust with David Sanger is especially damaging since high-level interviewees are "Superpower for Hire's" only claim at legitimacy. And I must commend you and your partners there - you've got a good crop. Blackwater founder Erik Prince is there to drum up controversy much like Ollie North was for "The Future is Black." Former Sandline International and Executive Outcomes employee Simon Mann - who served five years in prison after attempting a coup in Equatorial Guinea - can talk about the legal vagaries surrounding contractors. P.W. Singer is the moderate voice and go-to-guy for emerging trends in warfare, and David Sanger for Washington insider political talk. That's a pretty wide spectrum, with a good mix of current and former PMCs plus some outside analysts to keep them honest and problematize their often too-rosy outlook on the industry. If you play them off against each other and aren't afraid to question Prince and Mann hard, it'll be good material - just don't lob softballs and avoid controversy like you did with Ollie North.

But what worries me about the whole production is its emphasis on style over substance. The piece lacks both background information and context, assuming that the audience knows the people talking and the organizations they represent. Not everyone, for example, is politically astute enough to remember the various controversies surrounding Blackwater or how Executive Outcomes was Africa's go-to private army. And that's assuming they've even lived long enough to hear about it - many of the teens and pre-teens that play Call of Duty are too young to remember 9/11 or even the Invasion of Iraq. Someone who's 16 now would've been around 9 years old when Blackwater guards opened fire on civilians in Baghdad's Nisour Square.

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