“Involvement” and Games

Over the past few years, the concept of “involvement” has become an increasingly hot topic amongst media executives and marketers. MIT C3’s own Stacy Wood, an Associate Professor of Marketing at the University of South Carolina, has been studying involvement (among other things), and she recently wrote an excellent article on the subject. The article isn’t publicly available, but I’d like to share parts of it with you — it is relevant to game companies as advertisers, and as developers of an advertising medium.

“Involvement”, as a marketing term, refers to the level to which consumers are motivated to process product-related information. One might easily (and many marketing practitioners do) assume that you always want consumers to be highly involved when they process your product’s ad or information. After all, high involvement is the basis for effective learning — better attention, better rehearsal, better recall. Thus, many practitioner guides show how to get consumers involved in the marketing message.

This approach is not wrong, but it is a specific strategy that only works in specific situations. It seems counterintuitive, but there are many occasions when too much consumer involvement makes the marketing less persuasive rather than more. Often consumers are most influenced by ads in which they are least involved. This general phenomenon is reflected in a number of marketing and psychological theories. The most well-known is Petty & Cacioppo’s Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM). The ELM describes what is persuasive to people who are highly involved (e.g., statistics, facts, logic, strong arguments, words, expert endorsers) and to those who have low involvement (e.g., slogans, humor, catchy arguments, pictures, affect, likeable endorsers).

Consumers who are involved are able to process meaty logical evidence and they see through the slogans. Consumers who have low involvement only take the time to process info that is quick and easy (pictures, affect, etc.) and ignore other “data”.

…Remember that new restaurant as absolutely fabulous? Who were your dinner companions? Oh, it was an effervescent group of your best friends? Are you still so confident that the restaurant itself was so good?

Now imagine you went to that restaurant alone, with the sole purpose of reviewing the food quality. Not hard to imagine how your evaluation might change, is it?

A worthwhile clarification: people sometimes confuse “involvement” with “intellectual processing” or “emotional processing”, but it is neither of these things (and relates to both!) When people are highly motivated to process information (i.e. “more involved”) they perceive emotional input but often discount it as irrelevant, because logic and fact have more impact on them. When people are less motivated to process information (i.e. “less involved”) feelings and arousal have more impact on them.

By the way, this is all very relevant to problems I’ve been thinking about for a while now (see my old article on enhancing the effectiveness of in-game advertising.)

Why does this matter for new, and increasingly interactive, media? The point is that low involvement “learning” is associational and can be discounted when individuals are paying close attention to their motivations. Many ads embedded in media like video games, movies, and television programming are “exposure ads” (shots of logos or products in use) that are and should remain in the shadows of low involvement.

And here, I think, is the key for game developers. Game players are often (but not always) more “involved” than someone consuming a TV show or movie. Involvement is especially high at certain moments; i.e. when trying to solve a puzzle in an adventure game, or as part of an ARG. Given that, developers should be cautious when embedding product placements or dynamic advertisements into their games, especially at thought-provoking moments. I’d step especially lightly with ARGs.

Here’s a concrete example. Imagine the typical racing game. It features some “low involvement” advertising opportunities, such as moments when you zoom past a billboard on the side of the road. Those billboards can, in general, display slogans, logos, etc, without issue. However, this becomes progressively less true as developers try to force notice of the billboard; say, by making players stare at it for a few seconds at some crucial moment in the game. And what about the moment when a player gets to choose which car s/he will race in? That’s probably a “high involvement” moment — not a good time to sell Tide Detergent, promote a four-cylinder car, or suggest that Exxon fuel will increase your top speed by 25%.

I show my classes billboards for Budweiser and point out the (extremely) easily processed pictorial cues of beauty and arousal. In the ads, two women always surround one man. Couples lean into one another at exaggerated angles, mouths are open in very wide grins, and eyes sparkle as if they are wet. Is this what the typical bar looks like, I ask? Is this the product you would expect these people to be consuming? When they stop to think about it (and only then), they ridicule the ad as a fantastical myth that offers no “good” reason to drink Budweiser and is somehow offensive in its assumption that sex sells. The initial boost to Budweiser’s evaluation due to arousal’s warm positive affect is discounted in the cold light of logic.

But the Budweiser ad flies precisely because the average TV watcher will not think carefully about it. Since video games are different (more or less so depending on the game and the moment), I’d recommend that developers play this kind of mind-experiment with advertisements they wish to integrate into their games. If an ad seems silly upon reflection, don’t integrate it.

At the end of the day, if companies find that they have succeeded in garnering the attention of a lot of highly involved consumers, they better give those consumers something worth thinking about.

Enough said, no?

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