Virtual Worlds for Real-Life Pitches
New York Times
May 29, 2008
IN 2002, when
Electronic Arts signed a multimillion-dollar agreement
with McDonald’s to place virtual burgers in an online
version of its popular Sims video game, the move drew
protests from players who resented the commercial
A home in The Sims 2 is outfitted with Ikea furniture
from what the game calls a “stuff pack.” The game’s
maker, Electronic Arts, sees profit potential in such
deals, and so do marketers.
But the Sims, a virtual family designed by players, are
only becoming more brand-conscious. Starting in June,
people who play The Sims 2, the current version of the
game, will be able to buy a “stuff pack” (on a disc or
online) that lets them decorate their simulated
families’ homes with Ikea furniture. Last year a similar
deal was made with H&M, the Swedish clothing retailer,
that lets players buy a disc full of H&M-branded
clothing for their Sims avatars.
While most other “stuff packs” contain generic
accouterments — one called “Glamour Life,” for instance,
lets players pick from label-free furnishings and
evening gowns — the Ikea pack will let players move
items like the Ektorp sofa and the Leksvik coffee table
into their families’ virtual homes.
Electronic Arts, the world’s largest video game company,
said it made the deal with Ikea, the Swedish furniture
manufacturer, in response to requests in online players’
forums for more modern, realistic furniture.
“Because we have such a direct relationship with our
players, the players help shape the product strategy,”
said Nancy Smith, president of the Sims label, which has
sold more than 100 million copies.
The deal is yet another example of how the traditional
lines between paid-for content and marketing material
are blurring in the media world. Companies that sell
products and services are increasingly eager to place
their wares inside television shows and other media
rather than relying on stand-alone commercials. Media
companies like Electronic Arts, meanwhile, are looking
to sponsorship deals to help recoup the growing cost of
For marketers, the huge fan bases for some video games
are a potentially rich target audience. In one recent
blockbuster release, Grand Theft Auto IV sold more than
six million copies in its first week. The Grand Theft
Auto series is published by Take-Two Interactive, which
Electronic Arts has been trying to buy, though it has
persistently been rebuffed.
In addition to sponsorship agreements like the Ikea-Sims
deal, game companies have been trying to sell
advertising space and time in games, often on billboards
or other elements of the virtual backdrop. In games
played online, ad space can be sold across networks of
games for specific time periods, as it is on television.
But analysts say that advertisers have been skittish
about such ads, in part because of their limited reach.
Some networks, for instance, work only with games played
on a single system like Microsoft’s Xbox or Sony’s
Other advertisers may worry about placing their brands
in controversial material. The Grand Theft Auto
franchise is notorious for its violent and sexually
laced content, and the latest title contains only spoof
ads, for products like the “new iFruit phone,” which
resembles Apple’s iPhone but is promoted with this
pitch: “No buttons. No reception. No storage capacity.
Michael Goodman, an analyst at the Yankee Group, said
that last year, marketers spent about $180 million on
in-game advertising, including sponsorships like Ikea’s
deal. He has predicted that spending would rise to $332
million this year, but said he was considering lowering
that forecast slightly, as growth seems to be slower
For marketers seeking a safe environment for their
brands, tie-ins seem to offer a measure of control.
Also, by putting the name of the sponsor brand on the
game’s packaging, they go beyond simple product
placement deals like Electronic Arts’ arrangement with
McDonald’s (a similar deal with Ford Motor allows people
who play Sims online to download virtual cars at no
“Ikea sees this as a new channel to reach the young and
the young at heart,” an Ikea spokeswoman, Charlotte
Lindgren, said in an e-mail message.
The “stuff packs” will cost about $20.
The Ikea partnership with Electronic Arts is similar to
the deal with H&M, though that promotion also allowed
players to take part in a fashion show. A winning design
will be sold in actual H&M stores this summer.
Steve Seabolt, vice president for global brand
development for The Sims, said Electronic Arts was
pursuing similar arrangements with other companies. He
declined to say which one might be next, but named as
potential partners consumer electronics companies, like
Philips, Electrolux and Sony, as well as brands like
Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, Pepsi, Coca-Cola and Borders
The Sims 3 is set to be released next year, with new
features like a town center that has plenty of virtual
storefronts (read: opportunities for advertising).
Electronic Arts and Ikea declined to provide financial
details of their agreement. Mr. Goodman, the Yankee
Group analyst, said that while advertisers typically pay
for space upfront, in this case the two companies might
have agreed to share revenue from sales of the software
Mr. Seabolt of Electronic Arts said his company was
willing to be flexible for marketers considering The
Sims. “This is anything but a one-size-fits-all
proposition,” he said. “We make a huge effort to sit
down with clients and really understand their marketing
Subscribers receive no more
1-2 emails per week