Big companies know how important branding and characters are and whatever the industry you’ll find mascots or iconic characters featuring in advertisements. Here in the UK, one particular insurance company has made themselves a huge success by utilising meerkat mascots, most Brits will know of or be aware of these insufferable creations and many will have bought insurance or purchased meerkat soft toys because of them.
Gaming companies are no different and know the importance of being ‘on brand’ and the subsequent effect it often has on their fans. The value of their characters comes inherently from the gravity we place on their characters and even our own relationships to them. We treat them like idols but we also integrate them into our own lives and personal history.
Sonic the Hedgehog is one of Sega’s biggest poster boys…or hedgehogs, I guess. Not unlike most fans I would happily buy and have purchased Sonic the Hedgehog merchandise but that’s because the character of Sonic is important to me in both a personal and historical context. He is part of my childhood and is deeply ingrained in it. I consider Sonic a cherished part of my childhood memories, no different to the time I was first taught how to ride a bike or climb a tree.
One company who has realised the value of a childhood association is Halifax Bank here in the UK. In a desperate bid to make everyone forget about the financial crisis and government bailouts a few years back, they have enlisted Fred Flintstone, Top Cat, Scooby-Doo and a whole host of other Hanna-Barbera characters to sell bank accounts, insurance and even mortgages.
This kind of marketing is extremely exploitative but luckily, I don’t think I’ve seen video game characters being used in this way. Sure, to sell a few t-shirts or a lunch box or two but not to sell you a potentially life-changing financial responsibility.
What makes games companies different to the Halifax/Hanna-Barbera partnership or the creation of a new mascot to sell a product, is that gaming fans associate idols with their childhoods in a way that gives us a false sense of communal ownership over them. This perception is extremely problematic for both fans and the gaming companies alike, causing some serious rifts between companies who are protecting their rights and fans who wanting express their love and enjoyment of characters.
Of course, some companies or games like to encourage fans to reference their brand as long as they are not commercially exploiting those references for monetary gain, Bungie and Blizzard spring to mind especially.
Yet, we’ve all seen various iterations of unauthorised usage on merchandise before and dare say, purchased said merch, right? While we as fans like to buy 100% official products, sometimes those on offer fall short, don’t live up to expectation or just aren’t visually interesting enough.
Licensing and copyright laws are so varied throughout the world and can be extremely subjective in their interpretations, meaning legal disputes are not uncommon. Some of my own friends have had their work plagiarised, it’s an awful situation for an independent artist to be in because not only do a lot of freelance creators struggle financially but there seems to be grey area surrounding what is and isn’t considered acceptable.
The most recent furore has revolved around Nintendo and Japan based city tour company MariCar, which enables tourists to dress up like Mario and co. and drive around the city in go-karts. I was so excited when I heard about this last month yet equally disappointed because I only learnt about it when Nintendo announced it was suing the tour company as they did not ask permission to offer a Mario Kart experience.
Nintendo is notorious for keeping tight control over any intellectual property it owns and insists on taking ad-revenue from Let’s Play videos on YouTube even if the creator doesn’t monetise their account.
The timing of MariCar is bad for Nintendo because late last year, it was announced that Nintendo-themed areas would be opening at various Universal Studios and Parks (Osaka, Orlando and Hollywood). Personally, as a fan and as someone who is also visiting Japan this year I would have relished the chance to dress up as Luigi and ride around Tokyo in a go-kart, though if I’m honest my main reason for wanting to do so would be to recreate the Luigi Death Stare.
Seriously though, the whole case is littered with problems and if it reaches trial, it would be an interesting debate on gaming copyright law. If Nintendo can really ban people from wearing a red cap and fake moustache, it makes me wonder what else will be at risk? What will cosplayers do? Surely a company that facilitates cosplay (if you can call a onesie cosplay, that is) shouldn’t be penalised.
But according to the big N, they are simply seeking to protect “valuable intellectual property” that they have “built up over many years of effort” and have called out MariCar as unfair competition, suing them for copyright infringement and also suggesting they will take similar action against others in the future.
Well, I guess that’d be the end of seaside amusement arcades then! Most of my Mario plush toys hail from those claw machines at amusement arcades and though they claim to be, they are most certainly not official.
Perhaps Nintendo ought to work on co-operating with other companies or partnering with merchandisers to avoid similar issues arising. That said, news of a Nintendo themed area of Universal Studios certainly surprised me and could be a sign that Nintendo are beginning to loosen the reigns a bit.
We’ve recently seen games incorporate product placement into their games much in the same way as films do, the first example that presents itself is the collaboration between Final Fantasy XV and famous noodle brand Nissin. The noodle company made a huge marketing deal with Square Enix to feature their brand of Cup Noodle in the game. The campaign worked and was well received by fans due to the humour of the advertisement itself and the way it was handled in-game. Forget in-game ads, they’re now integrated.
Is this the shape of things to come? Well, cross-platform advertisement has often touted as the future of marketing and if that’s the case then should game companies follow suit and transition in the same way? Most companies are already putting emphasis on cross-platform methodology and it makes me wonder if Nintendo will also get with the times. Though, attempting to stay relevant has never seemed to faze Nintendo before now so I’d say it is pretty unlikely.
I guess we’ll never get to indulge our Luigi Death Stare…I mean, Mario Kart cosplay fantasies after all.
What do you think about product placement in games or current copyright laws? Let us know in the comments section below.