Advertising is inescapable. Everywhere you go in your life ad agencies are there waiting for you. From the streets we walk on to the television shows we pass the time with. In our current age of 24 hour news and media, advertising cannot take a second off since there is always someone viewing something. This quantity doesn’t always translate to quality though. From print to radio to television, there are awful advertisements everywhere. The video game industry hasn’t done its job to avoid this problem. Now most of the ads you’ll see for a video game aren’t bad, they’re just terribly bland. Most developers only choose to show some in game footage with a voiceover or a song playing. I’m don’t know about you, but I’m sure as hell sick of seeing a wartime FPS ad with “intense” game play footage while some hard rap song plays in the background (yes I’m looking at you MW3 and BF3.) I could keep ranting, but there is a reason for all of this. I chose to call this series “The Mad Men of Gaming” in honor of the AMC television show Mad Men. If you haven’t seen it, the show revolves around the advertising industry in New York City in the 1960’s. All of its episodes are incredibly well written and, at its core, pays homage to the great ad creators of yester-year. The focus of this article and the future installments will be to point out a video game developer that has gone above and beyond with their advertising strategy. Instead of just performing at the median, these developers chose to meet the bar and raise it to another level. The first company I decided to focus on was a no brainer. Bungie has been consistently overachieving for years with their Halo series marketing campaigns. I guarantee you’ve seen at least one of their TV spots over the years, but do you know how much time and effort was put into these? The spark that started the entire trend was the “Believe” series released for Halo 3. Lets dive in and take a look at what made this specific strategy so special.
After the massive success that was Halo 2, Bungie knew that they couldn’t just coast with the sequel. This applied to all aspects of the game. While being completely conscious of their brand awareness, Bungie knew that if they wanted to keep their massive fan base and try to expand on it the company couldn’t just sit back with the advertising campaign. Not only did they step up to the challenge, the team went above and beyond what was required for someone in their position. Bungie attacked this campaign with a multi-pronged strategy, starting with the “Starry Night” ad, which aired on Monday Night Football on Dec. 4 2006. This ad generated plenty of buzz, telling fans to “Finish The Fight.” As the campaign marched on throughout the year, it truly reached its pinnacle with the “Believe” commercial series released just weeks before the game. “Believe” was a 4 part installment used to create a level of realism in the universe and events that were about to transpire for gamers around the world. The premise behind the ads was simple, decades after the war was over the human race was creating a museum to commemorate the battles that saved humanity. What set the museum off was the centerpiece; an enormous diorama depicting one of the key battles in the war. This 35 x 40 foot model was painstakingly hand crafted just for this promotion. While only one of the ads actually featured the diorama, all of the commercials featured “veterans” from the war against the Covenant.
This first spot features an elderly man gazing at one of the sections of the diorama while a voiceover interview with him captures one of the battles he was in. The first time I watched this commercial what blew me away was how genuine the man came off as a war veteran. As the actor describes the harsh battle he was in while the camera cuts throughout graphic views of the model, the scene just feels heavy. You legitimately start to believe this man was in a war. As the actor talks about Master Chief and how he inspired everyone in the battle with just his presence, I started to forget this was just a commercial and started to, wait for it, Believe.
The next commercial is centered around 2 ex-soldiers being interviewed in what appears to be an armory section of the museum. What first jumped out to me was the quality of the set pieces. Bungie and their production company definitely took their time making the weapons and vehicles. The second aspect that stands out is the acting. As in the first ad, the way the man speaks about past events adds an incredible amount of realism. What sold me was when the ex-sniper became uncomfortable holding the Spiker. He seemed genuinely shaken and disturbed holding an enemy weapon in his hands.
By far the third ad, to me, was the most powerful visually. In it another war veteran leads the documentary crew into a spot deep in the woods late one night. He describes how his squad had to “go dark” for 7 hours, sitting in the forest helplessly waiting for Master Chief to rescue them from the Covenant that were hunting his troops. What makes this ad unique is when the narrator asks him if they can turn off the lights. He hesitates before he agrees, and after it goes dark he speaks in a whisper, even though there isn’t a threat in the forest. His description of the waiting, along with the shadows of the wooded area, gives his tale a menacing tone that adds another layer to the series of commercials. I genuinely got a chill while watching this particular one for this article.
For the “Believe” campaign, the last spot follows a soldier as he visits an aged battle site. The tone in this one is noticeably different from the others. He stands outside holding a sniper shell that he found, talking about how no Spartan, including Master Chief, could be listed as KIA. As the man talks about the ceremony 5 years prior and the words the Chief spoke to him, there is a sense of pride in his voice. This man is physically scared from the war, but you can tell by his expressions and how he conveys them that he feels privileged to have fought alongside such a great soldier. His last line, about “no soldier being honored for what is expected…” is possibly the best part of all the ads. It takes all of these fictional characters, from the commercials and the games, and helps to transform them into actual people.
These 4 commercials were introduced roughly 3 weeks before the release of the game and they were Bungie’s strongest entries in their advertising strategy. The amount of detail put into every set piece helps to bring the universe to life. The diorama alone is a work of art. Every single piece of it was handmade to look as realistic as possible. The real heart of the series is the human element. The testimonials from the veterans give you an incredible mixture of nostalgia and repressed fear. The actors do such a fine job portraying these damaged soldiers, all of whom have nothing but gratitude for Master Chief.
Bungie spent an unprecedented $10 million on these ads alone, but it was well spent. Microsoft and McCann Worldgroup, the advertising agency they used for the “Believe” campaign, won 2 prestigious Grand Prix awards at the Cannes Lions 2008 international advertising festival. For a video game to take home such esteemed awards in the field of advertising is unheard of. These commercials set the ground work for the live action ads the company made for both follow ups, Halo 3: ODST and Halo Reach. Without the notoriety and fan fare that “Believe” achieved, those magnificent ads would’ve never been created. What’ll be interesting to see is what direction Halo 4’s ad campaign takes. With Bungie no longer in the picture and developer 343 Industries taking the reins of the franchise, will they try to continue on a similar path? Will they try to break new ground in a completely new and unique way? Or will they fall back into the same habits that most video game ad campaigns so often do? Only time will tell, but one thing is certain…I’m excited to see if 343 can follow up the Chief of video game advertising.