In the late ’80s and early ’90s, video games began to explore new avenues of advertising. Traditional advertising methods such as commercials and print ads were still prevalent, but companies started to look for innovative ways to promote their products within the games themselves. This led to the rise of what is known as advergaming, a form of marketing where brands and products are integrated into the gameplay experience.
One of the early pioneers in this field was the soda brand 7UP, which introduced its mascot, Cool Spot, into video games. Cool Spot was a charismatic console hero, a clever red dot that starred in his own saga across multiple platforms and generations: Cool Spot, Spot Goes to Hollywood, and Spot: The Cool Adventure. Many of these ’90s advergames stood out for being more than just minor creations; they were well-produced releases designed by renowned developers. The strategy worked perfectly, as players bought and enjoyed cartridges that were impeccable advertising vehicles for the company.
By the late 2000s, the gaming industry had explored almost every imaginable avenue of promotional marketing. Real sports apparel featured in FIFA player equipment, dynamic billboard ads on the highways of Burnout Paradise or battlefields of Mercenaries 2, video ads embedded in free mobile games, and even massive global events featuring artists and franchises held within Fortnite’s realms or Sea of Thieves’ seas. However, there was still room for another unexpected marketing strategy to take the stage: dystopian marketing.
In 2019, after four years of development and a budget estimated by Forbes to be between sixty and eighty million dollars, Death Stranding was officially released. It was a dystopian adventure conceived by the legendary cult author Hideo Kojima, creator of the Metal Gear series and known for his willingness to take risks with wild ideas. Death Stranding had the soul and ambitions of a blockbuster production: a cast including names like Norman Reedus (The Walking Dead), Léa Seydoux (Blue Is the Warmest Color), Mads Mikkelsen (Hannibal), Margaret Qualley (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), Guillermo del Toro (director of Pan’s Labyrinth), Nicolas Winding Refn (director of Drive), and Edgar Wright (creator of Shaun of the Dead); a soundtrack featuring songs from Low Roar, Chvrches, Bring Me the Horizon, and Major Lazer; a tightly guarded storyline that was revealed only at the last moment, and at least forty hours of gameplay ahead.
Death Stranding was also accompanied by an unexpected advertising feat. There was a commercial alliance between Kojima and the energy drink brand Monster, with the latter making its way into the former’s universe. In the game, the protagonist (Reedus) not only drank cans of Monster but also wore its merchandise. In practice, the beverage was not merely an aesthetic element but an active part of the game, as consuming it temporarily boosted the character’s stamina. On the other side of the screen, players questioned the advertising move, arguing that the presence of a real-world multinational beverage company seemed out of place in a post-apocalyptic story. On paper, Death Stranding received critical acclaim and climbed sales charts. The much-discussed product placement controversy ultimately proved beneficial: after the game’s release, Monster’s stock value soared to heights it hadn’t reached in weeks.
In the long run, this precedent of dystopian marketing would inspire a curious follower. In 2020, Cyberpunk 2077 hit the shelves, eight years after its initial official announcement. It was a highly anticipated video game set in another dystopian future, where Keanu Reeves played a co-starring role. It was a product of a costly development, nearly two hundred million dollars, and a colossal pre-release marketing campaign. Unfortunately, it became one of the most catastrophic launches in entertainment history: it was released unfinished, full of bugs and issues that forced the recall of copies and refunds to consumers. What is interesting is that, prior to the disaster, the game was also subject to an advertising idea that evoked the caffeine of Death Stranding but in the opposite direction. The developers reached an agreement with the company Rockstar Energy to create a real-world energy drink called Samurai Cola, conceived as part of Cyberpunk 2077’s universe. In reality, the taurine-based product placement was not the only connection with Death Stranding in that cybernetic future: in one of the game’s missions, players could visit the pub of a luxurious hotel and locate among its armchairs a man with the appearance of a cult author, bearing the same resemblance as the Japanese named Hideo Kojima. The visionary inventor of dystopian marketing.