EA Isn’t the Only Company Paying Celebrities to Positively Promote its Games

Image Credit: Instagram / Benjamin Burnley

In one of the more odd headlines of recent years, Breaking Benjamin’s lead singer Benjamin Burnley went on an expletive-laden Instagram rant earlier this week about EA and the quality of the publisher’s recent Star Wars Battlefront game. 

In a post on the app, Burnley posted an image of a shattered Battlefront disc alongside a caption reading: “They wanted to pay me to post that I like this peice of shit game .. They can shove it up their ass this game sucks I’d rather watch the god awful prequels then play this peice of shit one more second that’s for ruining Star Wars EA 🙂 [sic]” He also followed up his comments in an interview with radio station 94.3 WCYY, which you can watch below:

Inevitably, this placed a spotlight on EA and on Star Wars Battlefront, which had been receiving a mixed reaction among critics and players alike. Were EA paying off these celebrities to give positive publicity to a game that many believed wasn’t very good? Well, in a word, yes – but it’s not as though their behavior was unprecedented.

Much like any other entertainment medium, publishers working within the gaming industry are keen to tap into the popularity of celebrities in order to advertise their products, and it’s a tradition that has preceded the likes of Twitter and Instagram. Take this regrettable image of respected actor Alan Cumming, for instance, teaming brown leather pants with a sweater vest and Tyler Durden’s jacket, holding aloft a GameCube as the life slips away from behind his eyes:

AlanCummingGamecube

Image Credit:  Evan Agostini / Getty Images

Then you have this excellent photograph of The Rock and Bill Gates, likely buddies I’m sure you’ll agree, who were both present to announce the original Xbox. The Rock even wore a puke-green suit to match the design of the chunky console:

TheRockXbox

Image Credit: Jeff Christensen / Getty Images

The difference between then and now, though, is that celebrities can take part in viral marketing, which essentially allows them to use their social networking accounts in order to advertise upcoming games, without it being made entirely clear that they’re involved in a business relationship with the game’s distributors.

A prime example of this would be the following tweet from Ludacris, which was sent out to the rapper/actor’s whopping 10.8 million followers on the launch of Call of Duty: Black Ops 3:

The tweet doesn’t specifically note whether or not any money changed hands between Black Ops 3 publishers Activision and Ludacris, but it’s easy to assume that is the case. Online advertising is a lucrative market for celebrities to enter into, one which can see them being paid thousands for no more than a single tweet. For instance, it has been reported that Cristiano Ronaldo gets paid up to €230,366 ($243,772) per sponsored tweet – it’s easy money, if you’re willing to withstand a bit of a dent in your reputation in the eyes of those who see through what you’re doing.

But is it wrong of companies to employ this tactic, and for celebrities to take them up on their offers? It’s easiest to argue that it’s entirely dependent upon the situation. For instance, Ludacris’ tweet is very dubious as it doesn’t disclose the presumed business relationship between the rapper and Activision. As such, it’s comparable to a a sponsored post you’d see from an online publication, only for the publication to intentionally not make it clear to its readers that the post had been created as a result of a sponsorship deal.

It’s murky territory, but one that gets even more divisive when it involves people who are actually notable figures within the community surrounding video games, and not rappers or singers. For instance, there was recently some controversy surrounding comments made by members of the popular YouTube channel Rooster Teeth, who criticized the founder of online gaming site Giant Bomb Jeff Gerstmann for giving Fallout 4 a rating of 3 out of 5 stars. However, Rooster Teeth had also been taking part in an extensive advertising campaign for the game, with the criticisms they made about Gerstmann taking place in a video in which they were also wearing plastic Pip-Boys.

Rooster Teeth had also conducted a ‘Fallout 4 in Real Life’ video series, in which the sponsored nature of the video was only available to view in an annotation left on the video (which is not available to mobile viewers) and a comment in the video’s description (which few actually read). 

Rooster Teeth aren’t alone when it comes to YouTubers trying to veil their sponsored content (and it could be argued that the addition of an annotation unfortunately means that they’re being more transparent than most, with many simply limiting their disclosure to the description box), but they serve as a good example of popular figures who blur the line between reality and sponsorship, and highlight how it’s not just the Big, Bad EA who are guilty of soliciting these deals – even the beloved Bethesda does it, too.

Unfortunately ads and sponsored content continue to occupy a gray area, which restrictions being even more difficult to enforce over the Internet. In terms of YouTubers and their reluctance to clearly outline their sponsored videos, YouTube is likely to crack down on this in the near future given the advent of YouTube Red, a monthly subscription service in which users pay to have all ads from the site removed (among other features). This would mean that sponsored content would conflict with the no ads deal promised to the service’s subscribers, which will either cause YouTube to prohibit its creators sponsored content if Red faces criticisms as a result of this, or – and this is the more likely option – they’ll introduce and enforce stricter guidelines in regards to paid content. However, the likes of Twitter and Instagram remain fair game, with users not being forced to disclose any agreements they make between companies in order to promote their products. 

So while the Breaking Benjamin frontman’s humorous destruction of a Star Wars Battlefront disc is not an example of EA behaving any less ethical than their peers, it does serve as a reminder that you shouldn’t believe everything you read on the Internet – especially if it’s a musician’s glowing review of a video game.