Last Updated: November 21, 2020

Anyone who has played a video game in the last 10 years knows how incredibly immersive they have become. The level of detail possible in today’s games allows gamers to enter another universe where they are engaged with sights, sounds, stories, and interactive game play.

As the quality of video games has improved, the number of people playing them has grown. The residents of nursing homes use the Nintendo Wii to play low impact bowling or golf with their friends. Online games allow even casual gamers to play cards or simple puzzle games for free. Popular smart phone games like Angry Birds have been downloaded tens of millions of times. Interactive games are no longer confined to the living room. They are an activity that anyone can enjoy just about anywhere.

There is still the popular perception of the video gamer as a nerdy young male, but the reality is that video games have entered the mainstream in a big way. According to a report by the Entertainment Software Association, up to 65% of American households play video or computer games every year. Women make up 40% of the gamer population, and 26% of people over 50 have played a video game in the last year. With so many people playing video games, it makes sense that marketers might try to capitalize on this captive audience, presenting them with in-game advertisements and special offers for products or services.

What is in-game marketing?

In-game marketing allows advertisers to pay to have their name or products featured in digital games. Huge billboards placed in virtual cities can feature the logos of major corporations, while racing games can feature real cars made by Ford or Chevy. Advertisers have been both creative and aggressive in their attempts to integrate ads organically into games.

Why Advertisers Choose In-Game Marketing

When Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory was released in 2006 it featured in-game advertisements from several major companies. Each company was attracted to the idea of in-game marketing for a different reason, but all of them saw advantages in using the popular Splinter Cell franchise as a space for advertising.

  • Axe – The maker of men’s grooming products saw in-game marketing as a great way to connect with a male audience aged 18-34. This is the demographic most attracted to the military combat featured in the game.
  • AMD – The PC version of the game requires advanced computing technology to run smoothly. Computer processor maker AMD was able to reach a technically savvy segment of the computer buying population by targeting gamers.
  • Nokia – Splinter Cell is a game that is full of gadgets and gear. Nokia placed advertisements that helped associate their cell phones with the high-tech gear the hero of the game uses.

There are a number of advantages to advertising in video games compared to traditional marketing in print, radio or television (See also Traditional Marketing). Given that video games are so immersive, the full effect of the ad registers on the viewer because they are so invested in the game.

The interactivity of games also allows for more clever and subtle forms of advertising. Rather than bombarding gamers with logos or slogans, marketers can work their messages into the gameplay in a way that feels vital to the experience. The ads become a feature rather than a distraction.

In-game advertising options are also highly customizable. According to a study by The Diffusion Group, up to of 80% of video game consoles are connected to the Internet, which allows them to receive dynamic content updates on a regular basis. This means that marketers can change and segment their advertisements at will, choosing when ads show up and who they target. In 2008, Barack Obama’s Presidential campaign ran ads in popular sports games that only appeared to gamers living in swing states.

Some advertisers have even taken the step of developing their own games explicitly for the purpose of marketing. Many popular movies develop simple online games based on scenes from the movie. These interactive ads allow companies to push strong marketing messages while also entertaining their most interested customers.

Who implements in-game marketing?

In-game marketing is a strategy that is used almost exclusively by major corporations. The global reach of video games means that international brands have the most to gain from having their image show up in games (See also International Marketing). Video games are a proven way to reach the young male demographic — a holy grail of marketing for retailers.

Currently, the cost of marketing in games sometimes outweighs the benefits for small and mid-sized businesses. Contracts usually lock advertisers into expensive and broad marketing agreements with game developers. As the industry grows and the level of customizability of ads improves, there may be opportunities for companies of all sizes to use in-game advertising.

Classic Examples of In-Game Marketing

The marketing company Screen Digest estimates that advertisers will spend $1 billion on in-game advertising in 2014. Despite huge growth over recent years, advertisers have used video games for advertising for almost as long as there have been video games. Here are a few examples from an older era of gaming.

  • Chuck Wagon – Purina developed a game for the Atari 2600 based on its Chuck Wagon brand of dog food. Players guided a dog through a maze to try to get to a bowl of Chuck Wagon. The game was available to customers who sent in proof of purchase labels from bags of dog food.
  • M.C. Kids – McDonald’s got involved with in-game marketing when they released a title for the first Nintendo. Players tried to retrieve hamburgers stolen by the Hamburgler. McDonald’s was not happy with the finished product and did very little to promote the game.
  • Cool Spot – This game, based on 7-Up’s “Spot” mascot, was the rare example of an advertising gimmick that found praise from gamers and critics alike. The game was able to transcend its transparent advertising message to deliver a fun and challenging experience to gamers.
  • Kool-Aid Man Video Game – Kool-Aid’s ubiquitous mascot the “Kool-Aid Man” starred in his own game for the Atari 2600. The game involved serving Kool-Aid to an army of thirsty monsters. The game was criticized for its poor game play and its confusing story. The game probably alienated more Kool-Aid drinkers than it thrilled.

An in-game marketing plan is based on the level of commitment a company wishes to dedicate toward gamers. Placing ads in major new games can be fairly simple, while designing original games and hosting them online can be much more complicated. A company must evaluate their goals and their resources before deciding what kind of plan to undertake.

The most important aspect of any in-game marketing plan is matching the right product with the right game. As discussed earlier, people across all demographics play video games, but the titles they choose to play vary widely. Young males tend to prefer action and sports games, and families tend to gravitate toward simple puzzle or adventure games. It wouldn’t make sense to integrate an ad for basketball shoes into an online version of Scrabble. In-game marketers must research the customers most likely to buy their products and then find out what games they are most likely to play. (See also Targeted Marketing)

If a marketer designs their own game, they will work with game developers to translate their products and brand messages into interactive experiences. The goal is to create a balance between the marketing message and the game play. If a game seems too much like a blatant advertisement it will turn players off.

Ads placed in online games usually link to pages where the consumer can purchase products or find out more information. The landing pages that users link to must reflect the games that they have linked from. For example, if a card company chooses to place ads on top of solitaire games, the landing page might focus on solitaire or other one-person card games.

Creating the in-game ad is just the first step. Online retailers have to design dedicated web pages that can handle the new traffic they generate. Landing pages also allow marketers to track all activity generated by the link URL. They will then analyze the data and determine whether the ad was a success or not. (See also Post-Click Marketing)

Gaming by Genre

Marketers can improve the effectiveness of their ads by targeting them to certain demographics. Knowing that young men like shooting games while old women like casino games helps marketers to segment their advertising efforts. The chart below, based on a study conducted by the Entertainment Software Association, illustrates the highest selling game genres of 2011. It is clear from this data that action and shooting games reach the widest audience.

Careers in in-game marketing?

Game Developer

What do they do?

Average Salaries of In-Game Marketers

  • Game Developer
    entry level -$65,000 – $90,000
    after 10 years – $100,000 – $120,000
  • Product Manager
    entry level – $50,000-$75,000
    after 10 years – $80,000-$110,000
  • Social media Marketing Manager
    entry level – $50,000-$70,000
    after 10 years – $80,000-$120,000


Game developers are the programmers who actually build the characters and levels that make up games. They work closely with marketers to ensure that advertising is incorporated as seamlessly and effectively as possible. In many cases, the look of the game and the nature of the game play will be directly influenced by the needs of marketers.

Education and Skills

A bachelor’s degree in computer science with a heavy focus on programming is common for game developers. Formal training in marketing is not required but can be extremely helpful. Games try to be appealing and engaging in the same way that ads do. Creating an organic balance between the ad and the game requires a deep understanding of both.

Product Manager

What do they do?

Product managers are responsible for managing all the marketing related to a single product. At a major company like Nike, a product manager might be responsible for all golf apparel, or basketball shoes. If they determine that an in-game marketing strategy is the best way to raise awareness of their product they will be responsible for planning it.

Education and Skills

Most product managers have degrees in business, engineering, or public relations. It is common for them to have MBAs. Formal training in marketing is not mandatory but will be very helpful. Since their job is to maximize the sales of certain products, they must understand what people want and how best to sell it to them.

Social Media Marketer

What do they do?

Social media marketers are in charge of managing a company’s marketing efforts of Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and other social media sites. One strategy they use is to pair their marketing messages with simple games that appear on Facebook. They might design the games themselves, or pay to place their ads in established games.

Education and Skills

A bachelor’s degree in marketing will be necessary to find this kind of work. Specialized training in online marketing strategies can be especially helpful. The most important skill to have will be a deep and ongoing understanding of how social media works. Constant engagement with all social networking tools is the only way to learn to use them effectively.

How can a marketing school help you succeed?

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In-game marketing is a new method of reaching consumers that still uses some traditional strategies, relying on pictures, text, and other attention grabbing features to attract consumers. While there are not huge differences between advertising in a real basketball court vs. a digital one, the technology used is fairly new, with marketers still determining the best ways to reach gamers. This combination of old and new marketing makes it absolutely necessary for in-game marketers to earn marketing degrees before entering the field. (See also Careers in Marketing)

New hires will need to know how to conduct market research, draft appealing ad campaigns, evaluate quantitative results, and stay ahead of trends. Bachelor’s programs in marketing help young professionals develop the skills to enact these campaigns, providing coursework that focuses on marketing in digital media.