Electronic Arts promoted the launch of its game ‘Mercenaries 2: World in Flames’ by giving away £20k worth of fuel at a London petrol station, and quickly learned that you can’t please all of the people all of the time. Good or bad marketing? You decide. Phil Lee reports.
Topic: Promotion marketing
Who: Electronic Arts
When: 5 September 2008
Law stated as at: 24 September 2008
It was either the most effective marketing ploy since the Carbolic Smoke Ball Company offered to give a £100 reward to any flu-sufferer whose symptoms were not cured by its products or the most disastrous marketing effort since, well, the Carbolic Smoke Ball Company offered… well, you get the idea.
In a case that hit headlines everywhere, leading video games publisher Electronic Arts ("EA") decided to promote the launch of its game "Mercenaries 2: World in Flames" (a game set in Venezuela where players use fuel as a currency) by giving away £20,000 worth of free fuel at a petrol station in Finsbury Park, north London. Participants in the promotion could claim up to £40 worth of petrol, enough to fill most fuel tanks.
What happened next was inevitable: drivers started queuing 'en masse', hoping to claim their free fuel. After only a short while, the traffic was gridlocked down the normally quiet residential roads. The response from locals was just as foreseeable: they got angry, with at least one local having to be 'calmed down' by EA security staff because he was unable to get his car out of his drive. Eventually, police moved in and called the promotion to a halt at 11am, just four or so hours after it began – after only £13,000 worth of petrol had been given away. All in all, some 500 drivers were given free petrol.
Why this matters:
This case perhaps best illustrates that collateral risk than can go hand-in-hand with organising high profile promotions. Whilst there seems to be no suggestion that EA acted illegally in running the promotion (it's worth pointing out that police were aware of the promotion before it launched), it nevertheless caused a great deal of controversy. To quote Lynne Featherstone, MP for Hornsey and Wood Green: "Whilst a lucky few might have got free petrol, hundreds of residents faced misery. Trying to recreate Venezuelan-style fuel riots on the streets of London is completely irresponsible and downright dangerous. Hundreds of local residents have faced misery on their daily journeys this morning. They deserve an apology for being the victims of such an ill thought-out media stunt." Another local resident was quoted as saying "I can't believe they've been allowed to do it… It's just creating unnecessary problems."
So was it really just an "ill thought-out media stunt"? The answer, it seems, depends on who you ask. Lynne Featherstone made her views very clear, but at least one participant was quoted by the BBC News website as saying "This is a genius idea, whoever thought of this should be promoted… I'll definitely be buying the game." EA defended its idea to run the promotion, denying that it was irresponsible and saying that that EA's intention was "to start everyone's weekend in a positive way".
Undoubtedly, the promotion has attracted some negative PR, but this must be counterbalanced by the fact that it also received enormous coverage and made the national news on just a £13k marketing spend – and, as the saying goes, there's no such thing as bad publicity. That said, maybe free petrol vouchers are the way forward next time!