I'm in pole position, tensely awaiting for the race to begin. Three sets of red light up - time to get serious. I can hear my lady purr as I depress the accelerator. Two yellow. The kitty becomes a lion. The noise is deafening. Suddenly, green! The combined force of eight engines and 32 squealing tires tears apart the pavement. Within seconds the pictures on the walls beside the track become mere blurs of color. Moments later, we're tumbling through a curving pipe, collecting power-ups and learning about modestly priced, fuel-efficient compact cars together.
Wait a second ...
Cue the canned record-scratch now, because I've just been hoodwinked. As it turns out, the Xbox Live Arcade download Yaris is less a game than an advertising gimmick designed to increase product awareness among 18- to 24-year-old college kids with a streak of green in them. The goal wasn't so much a finish line as it was a dotted line: Sign here, and you could be winding through traffic in a Yaris of your very own.
My obliviousness to Yaris' true purpose aside, Toyota's marketing ploy represents a shift in the way corporations view electronic media. Games have become a previously untapped source of millions of possible consumers. But the trend began long before Toyota offered their sporty subcompact as an XBLA download.
The first wave of in-game advertising and advergames hit the market in the late '80s and early '90s. Largely credited as the first company to promote their products in a virtual environment, Coca-Cola made a deal with Atari to display their brand on a special release of the blockbuster Space Invaders. That paved the way for games like Cool Spot and its sequel, Spot Goes to Hollywood. Soda giant 7 Up published both using an anthropomorphized copy of its logo as the games' protagonist.
At this point, the phrase "in-game advertising" meant nothing more to the console world than being barraged with the EA logo any time you wanted to play a sports title. Media buyers stayed away from the games industry even as the public proved surprisingly receptive to early efforts. But 7 Up had stumbled upon a surprising truth about advergames: Players are usually more than willing to forgive the "advertising" part as long as the "game" part is fun.
Companies have quickly caught on since the days of Cool Spot. It's no longer surprising to see a lone Gillette Fusion truck on the streets of Burnout Paradise, or watch Mattias Nielson call in a Hummer H3 for his gallivanting in Mercenaries. We expect most of these marketing ruses, even when they don't fit the rest of the game. (Every other vehicle in Mercenaries, for example, was brown, dark green or grey, while the H3 was bright red.)