The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Take, for example, the marketing of Electronic Arts's blockbuster new video game, Dante's Inferno. Last year, the company set about trying to educate the public not only about the game but about a 14th-century literary classic and the very nature of human morality. What ensued was one of the most complex campaigns in video-game history, one that got EA burned for fakery and sexism, and then—thanks to a bold change of direction—lauded for intellect and creativity. It's also a case study in surprising frugality, with a $200,000 guerrilla budget that yielded 47 million impressions of coverage. Today, AdFreak walks you through the nine circles of hell with the man who led the innovative and controversial marketing campaign for Dante's Inferno. So, put on your asbestos gloves and get ready to descend into damnation.
—Posted by David Griner
Before the campaign launch, EA researched what people knew about the poem itself, part of Dante Alighieri's three-volume Divine Comedy. An impressive 86 percent of respondents knew the name "Dante's Inferno," but just 19 percent knew what it was. So, the marketing strategy came to revolve around educating gamers about the centuries-old structure of hell imagined by Dante and re-imagined as an epic setting for EA's new action game.
"If you asked us who the star of Dante's Inferno is, we'd say hell is the star," Phil Marineau, the game's senior product manager, tells AdFreak. "We wanted to get out there and create a campaign that educated people about the Nine Circles of Hell. So, out of that, we created a project called the Nine Months of Hell."
Marketing for Dante's Inferno started nice and early with a "community day" at EA, where reporters, bloggers and fans were given a sneak peek of concept art. The intricate swag included nine handmade, one-of-a-kind volumes of the game's namesake poem.
EA's first guerrilla stunt for Dante's Inferno was actually pretty damned believable, as religious zealots appeared to protest the game outside the massive Electronic Entertainment Expo. Holding signs like "Trade in your PlayStation for a PRAYstation" and "My high score is in heaven," the protesters attracted lots of media attention, including a top story of Digg.com. The protest group, Salvationists Against Virtual and Eternal Damnation (S.A.V.E.D.), even had a Web site and promotional video. Of course, it was soon outed as a hoax, sparking quite a bit of consternation and setting the stage for future criticisms of the game's over-the-top marketing.
If there was one stunt that got people talking about Dante's Inferno—and rarely in a positive way—it was the "Sin to Win" contest at Comic Con 2009. Attendees were asked to "commit an act of lust" with one of the convention's many scantily clad "booth babes," then photograph it and send the shot to EA. Prizes included "a sinful night with two hot girls, a limo service, paparazzi and a chest full of booty."
The tone-deaf stunt came off like a fart in church. AdFreak's Rebecca Cullers, an avid video gamer, noted that EA blatantly alienated the large number of female gamers who already feel overlooked by most mainstream game marketing. The marketing team publicly apologized and withdrew to lick their wounds. Faced with pressure from the public and EA management, the marketing team made a vital decision to make the campaign a more high-brow endeavor.
"We wanted to be more Eyes Wide Shut than Van Wilder, and with 'Sin to Win' we were a little too Van Wilder," admits Marineau. " 'Sin to Win' was a great eye-opener for us, and we're glad it happened early on, so we could learn from it."
After the high-profile backlash against the Lust promotion, the Inferno team opted to go easy in August, though you have to appreciate any campaign where cannibalistic cooking is considered "going easy." To raise awareness of Gluttony, the team sent copious amounts of food to bloggers, then sent along a punishing dessert: a chunk of human leg. Actually, it was a well-designed cake, complete with confectionary maggots.
It was a pretty light—and not tremendously successful—promotional effort compared to the rest of the Inferno marketing. But it bought the campaign some time to build goodwill among bloggers, gamers and EA's own executives. "What happened with Gluttony was that the company slapped our wrists on Lust," Marineau says. "So, we recoiled a bit and tried to take it easy with Gluttony."
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