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Words: Lewis Packwood
Let's take a lovely break from all the depressing news by remembering a few times when video game companies did really idiotic things in ill-thought-out attempts to flog their latest wares.
I still can't quite believe this actually happened. In February 2019, THQ Nordic - the publisher behind the Darksiders series - decided it would be fun to hold an 'ask me anything' session on 8chan. Yes, 8chan, the site set up by people who thought 4chan, that notorious hotbed of anonymous hate speech, didn't go quite far enough. 8chan, the forum of choice for child pornographers and neo-Nazis. Yes, that 8chan.
Funnily enough, it didn't go very well. The AMA was interrupted by references to child pornography and Nazism, the internet quickly condemned THQ Nordic, and the company hastily issued an apology, with the head of the THQ Nordic group announcing an internal investigation and making sure to point out that the company in no way endorsed 8chan's content.
When the boss has to step in to remind people that your firm doesn't support child pornography, you know you've really screwed up.
PR firms and games companies often send out weird bits of tat to journalists in a bid to get their latest product noticed. But EA really took this to new and ill-advised heights when the company sent brass knuckles to media outlets to promote The Godfather II in 2009.
The trouble is that brass knuckles are banned in several US states, so EA had accidentally put itself in the position of being an illegal weapons distributor. The firm quickly realised its error and asked journalists to send the lethal hand jewellery back - but in California, where EA is based, even shipping these weapons is illegal, so in effect the company had asked journalists to break the law. Whoops.
In Auckland, New Zealand, someone had the bright idea of promoting Ubisoft's Splinter Cell: Conviction in 2010 by sending an actor to point a gun at people sat outside a bar. The gun was fake of course, but the terrified patrons didn't know that, and the police - armed with real guns - were soon on the scene.
A spokesperson for Monaco Corporation, the company in charge of promoting the game, told the NZ Herald that they had hired another firm to pull the stunt and had no idea a gun would be used, saying: "It was just marketing gone wrong." Yep, and how. Usually when marketing goes wrong it means little more than a typo in a press release, not an armed police response.
Keeping with the police-callout theme, a reporter in Sydney, Australia, was sent a small black safe in 2014 that came with the message, "check your voicemail". But she didn't use voicemail, and when she tried to open the safe, it started beeping.
Naturally this caused more than a little alarm. A squad of police cars swiftly arrived, the building was evacuated, and the police took the safe to the basement as a precaution. When they eventually forced it open, they found a copy of the game Watch Dogs. Ubisoft apologised, saying that members of the media were meant to receive a voicemail message alerting them to the arrival of the definitely-not-a-bomb-please-don't-worry-about-the-beeping promo packages.
In 2012, the creative agency Ralph dreamed up an app to promote Hitman: Absolution where you could choose Facebook friends for Agent 47 to 'assassinate'. Users were asked to pick a feature that Agent 47 could use to identify the target from a list that included - and I'm not making this up - 'Her strange odour', 'Her muffin top', 'Her hairy legs' and 'Her small tits'.
The victim would then receive a video showing them being assassinated by Agent 47, along with the reason for their slaying. As you can imagine, promoting cyber-bullying isn't really a great look, and neither is sending death threats to people over social media, so Square Enix quickly pulled the plug on the whole thing just four hours after the app went live. But you have to wonder how something like this ever got past the planning stage.
In 2007, Sony threw a party to promote God of War II that featured lots of actors in Greek costumes, a bloke dressed up as Kratos and, for some reason, a dead goat on a table. British tabloid newspaper The Daily Mail got hold of the story and, er, embellished it somewhat, alleging that guests were invited to "reach inside the goat's still-warm carcass to eat offal from its stomach".
This wasn't true of course, but in hindsight Sony realised that the dead goat was probably not a great look. The company began an internal investigation and recalled 80,000 issues of the Official UK PlayStation Magazine that featured pictures of the expired ruminant at the event - but the internet remembers, always.
In 2011, the PR firm TrashTalkFCM decided to hold an event in San Francisco to promote the THQ shooter Homefront, and released hundreds of red balloons in celebration. But of course, what goes up must come down, and the balloons ended up littering San Francisco Bay.
THQ defended itself by saying that the balloons were 100% biodegradable - but local officials retorted by pointing out that the balloons still posed a hazard to wildlife, and that dumping stuff in the sea is illegal under California law, promptly issuing a $7,000 fine.
The stupid PR stunts mentioned above all ended up embarrassing the companies involved, but there was one company in the 1990s and early 2000s that made stupid PR stunts its speciality - and it kind of worked.
Acclaim was behind such bizarre PR escapades as daubing homing pigeons with the Virtua Tennis 2 logo and training them to disrupt Wimbledon, offering cash to anyone who officially changed their name to Turok in a bid to flog Turok: Evolution, and saying they would pay anyone's speeding fines to celebrate the launch day of Burnout 2: Point of Impact.
And perhaps most infamously of all, the company offered money to people who were willing to display an advert for Shadow Man 2econd Coming on the gravestones of their relatives.
Naturally, all of this stuff made its way into tabloid headlines - which was exactly the point. An anonymous team member told Kotaku UK in 2014 that: "Budgets were tight, so it was easier to invest in PR and try to create word of mouth, rather than spread our marketing budget too thin and not make an impact. All the ideas were cheap to create from a concept perspective and scalable depending on how far we went."
But with Acclaim's closure in 2004, this 'golden age' of very silly PR stunts came to an end.
Featured Image Credit: Sony Computer Entertainment, Square Enix
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