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Fake Mobile Gaming Ads and the Pendulum Effect

We've all but reached the pinnacle of a fake mobile gaming ads trend where marketing teams are quite literally advertising gameplay that doesn't exist in their games (NOTE: I'm not a lawyer so I can't speak to the legality of this practice, nor am I accusing anyone of breaking the law). There are entire YouTube channels and subreddits dedicated to this phenomenon, and it probably goes without saying that these aren't exactly fan pages.

As we near the peak of this legally questionable fad, it's increasingly clear that users are growing tired of being force fed deceptive content. But instead of jumping on the bandwagon (please don't do this), we should be focused on figuring out the next big trend.

There's a theory called the Pendulum Effect:

The theory holding that trends in culture, politics, etc., tend to swing back and forth between opposite extremes.

In other words, Newton’s Third Law of Motion: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. We can actually observe instances of this theory in action throughout advertising history, and I believe it's the key to unlocking the next big trend in mobile advertising.

Case 1: The Rise, Fall, and Rise of Influencer Marketing

It was just a couple years ago that influencer marketing had nearly disappeared in the world of mobile marketing. What had exploded in popularity just a year or two earlier had suddenly disintegrated overnight. Marketers didn't understand the influencer-audience dynamic, and they underestimated just how smart these audiences actually were. Influencer campaigns were flimsy, blatant, and way too expensive, and audiences had had enough.

Then the industry got its shit together. Audiences had swung the pendulum away from cheap and insulting attempts at advertising, but not away from influencer marketing altogether. In 2018 I predicted influencer marketing would make a comeback with mobile marketers. Sure enough, marketers realized that audiences wanted genuine interactions with influencers, engaging content, and most importantly transparency. And just like that, influencer marketing was on top again. Brand teams started paying attention, micro-influencers became a thing, influencer marketing agencies were popping up everywhere, and influencers started following FTC laws (well, most of them anyway). There was a rebirth in influencer marketing simply because marketers paid attention to the pendulum.

Pendulum recap:

  • The "influencer" was becoming mainstream and users were clamoring for content
  • Marketers hopped on the bandwagon and started pouring money into influencer campaigns
  • Campaigns were aggressive and flagrant, and users weren't happy about it
  • The pendulum swings away from influencer marketing
  • Marketers wake up and respond with better campaigns and strategies
  • Users embrace the change

Case 2: Nintendo Wii U vs. Nintendo Switch

Remember the Nintendo Wii U? It's okay if you don't, most people still think it was just an add-on for the Wii. But if you do remember it, you probably remember the advertising campaigns too. They were cheesy, poorly written, and dare I say downright lame. Here's a refresher:

There's nothing wrong with angling a product towards children, but by 2012 Nintendo should have known that a significant percentage of their fanbase is adults. Painting your product to look like something made for children - and using annoying child actors to do it - is as strategically sound as Pepsi using Kendall Jenner and lighthearted protest visuals to emotionally connect with millennials.

The Wii was an innovative console and one of Nintendo's most successful products, but Nintendo fans were ready for something more mature. PC gaming was expanding exponentially with Steam reaching 65 million users in 2013 compared to its 25 million just 3 years earlier. GOG launched in 2012, and the indie scene was exploding with titles like FTL: Faster Than Light, FEZ, and Hotline Miami. It was clear that a massive shift was happening in the gaming world, but somehow (and perhaps unsurprisingly) Nintendo completely missed it.

Flash forward to present day and the Nintendo Switch is the hottest console on the block, already surpassing 50% of the Wii's lifetime sales. While the Switch has more enticing features to offer than the Wii U had, there's also something to be said for its advertising. Did Nintendo learn from its previous failure and start paying attention to the pendulum? It certainly seems that way. Just take a look at this Switch commercial:

The tone is more mature, the actors are more mature (and talented), even the color temperature is colder. But more importantly, it just looks cool. Like, how can you watch this and NOT want to play the Switch? Especially after watching that cringey Wii U ad.

I stumbled upon a great video by ChiGuy while researching this, which further compares the marketing efforts for the Wii U to the Switch if you're interested:

Pendulum recap:

  • Gamers are growing up and looking to be treated like a mature audience
  • Nintendo releases the Wii U and markets it like it's 1997
  • Gamers turn to more exciting and mature outlets like PC / Steam and the indie gaming scene
  • Wii U bombs hard
  • Nintendo releases the Switch and finally gets their marketing right
  • Gamers rejoice

Striking While The Pendulum's Hot

Like any good marketer, you're likely wondering how you can capitalize on this before all your competitors do it first. Well, I'd wager it's a fairly safe prediction that the pendulum will swing in the opposite direction - away from fake gaming ads - sometime in 2020. In fact, I'd argue it's already started to, considering Mobile Dev Memo addressed fake ads way back in October of 2019 (5 months ago). Right now is probably the best time to start taking advantage of this strategy.

It's hard to know exactly where the pendulum will swing, but it will definitely be in the opposite direction of deceptive ad strategies. Here are a few possibilities:
  • Pure, honest gameplay
  • Live action / traditional ads
  • Comedic or self-aware content

My money is on pure, honest gameplay. If users are tired of being lied to, honesty will be a catharsis for them.

You should also be cognizant of the Overton window:

The spectrum of ideas on public policy and social issues considered acceptable by the general public at a given time.

If honest gameplay was all it took to run a successful campaign then the industry never would've entertained fake ads in the first place. The pendulum will continue to swing and honest gameplay will once again become oversaturated. Marketers should continue to appeal to the Overton window in case things flip upside down overnight. I suggest splitting your creative pipeline into something like this:
For mobile gaming, the Overton window is typically a healthy blend of exciting gameplay, engaging copy, and just enough embellishment to make the ad stand out and catch someone's attention. Probably not the top performer in your arsenal, but consistent enough to survive multiple creative refreshes.

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