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November 12, 2010 / Notmaker

Call of Duty: Black Ops TV ad is solid…and takes a few subtler risks


I like Activision’s new TV ad for Call of Duty: Black Ops, the latest game in the CoD franchise.  In a time when special forces/near-future military shooters are practically pouring out of the industry onto our consoles, I can really appreciate how difficult it is to create an ad that makes the game’s themes as clear as possible while also being visually-distinctive enough to establish and creative tone that is demonstrably different from the ads of competitors’ products.

With this ad, Activision takes a nice, solid swing at the problem, with great pacing, a daring visual concept, and a couple more subtle attempts at differentiation.  While I’m not convinced on how clean a hit it is, considering the realities of the market, the presentation is excellent.

The ad draws attention immediately by placing everyday individuals in the middle of a furious combat situation.  But this is no National Guard recruitment ad; these people, despite their gung-ho behavior and weapon proficiency couldn’t look more out of place if they tried.  Many of them are overweight or too old or too young, and everyone is dressed in regular street clothes.  It doesn’t matter; they’re all here together, fighting for victory as heroic soldiers to the tune of “Gimme Shelter” (the later verses are notably left out).  There’s even two throw-in cameos by Kobe Bryant and Jimmy Kimmel towards the end.  All of this is meant to emphasize a single message, perfectly summed up by the tagline at the end: “There’s a soldier in all of us”, emphasizing the strength of Black Ops‘s multiplayer component by reminding us of the multiplayer strength of Treyarch’s last foray into the franchise, World at War.

It’s a pretty strong montage, well-paced and to great music.  But (aside from the slightly disturbing implications of everyday people ostensibly killing one another), Activision is also taking some pretty big risks with what isn’t visually present.  For one thing, there’s no gameplay footage.  There’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it CG-simulation of it around 0:38, but there’s no actual gameplay or even cutscene footage that clearly establishes this ad as a CoD ad.  Furthermore, I could easily see someone channel surfing by thinking the ad was actually a recruitment ad.

More than a little similar

It is important, therefore, to take a couple things into account when judging this particular ad.  Military-themed first-person shooters occupy a slightly odd place in the game industry; as developers  have continued to  get closer to imitating realism (and the relatively small industry has cross-trained and shared tools), shooters which feature modern or near-future military scenarios have started to look a bit…similar.

As a result, the marketing for military-themed shooters has become much more difficult.  It’s much easier for the minute, less-visible differences between games and gameplay in the same genre to be explained in a 1000-word review (or 10-minute video demo) than it is in a 30 to 60-second TV ad.  Making a spot and filling it with gameplay footage simply may not work in your favor if potential customers misidentify the game.

Which is why Activision benefits enormously from having the genre leader as a franchise.  They have, in effect, the taken the default assumptive position; their competitors have to worry about being mistaken for them, not the other way around.  Is this an infallible place to be?  Absolutely not.  But for a franchise in the dominant position that CoD is, it allows a marketing approach that simply isn’t tenable for anyone else.

The “confusion for a recruitment ad” is a little stickier as a problem.  Speaking personally, I knew that it wasn’t a recruitment ad because of the small details that really didn’t fit any of the recruitment ads I have seen; the presence of very un-soldiery people (not to mention the celebrities), the blink-and-miss FPS shot, the Rolling Stones song, not to mention the lack of particularly patriotic themes.  But someone else with different expectations and media exposure than I might not see it that way.  I can really only conclude that I’m part of the audience that Activision intended this ad for, and their own market research included (or should have included) studies as to whether their targeted demographics would make that intuitive leap.

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