Can something be called an ad if it doesn’t tell you anything about the product it’s pushing?
You’ve known for weeks that the trailer for the third installment of your favorite video game was coming out, and on the day it’s released you anxiously pull up YouTube or your favorite gaming site to check it out. You wonder if this next version will have better graphics, a cooler storyline, additional game-play options, or more weapons available to complete your missions, but when you check out the trailer none of those questions are answered. You see no intro, no stills, and learn nothing about how this game might be different from the previous two. Instead, you almost feel like you’re watching a news special about what’s going on with the military.
‘Superpower for Hire’ is the title of the trailer, which makes sense because the Call of Duty series is about a futuristic dystopian world where private military contractors, or PMCs, are the most powerful people on the planet. The characters in the game have a ‘superpower’ that they hire out to the highest bidder, but this ad doesn’t talk about characters. It talks about real life PMCs- revealing how they are steadily taking over military operations, and the danger that could mean for the government.
‘What happens when PMCs stop taking orders and start taking over,’ a voiceover asks, but again, they are not referring to the game. Gamers who watch this trailer learn that the US has spent 3.3 trillion dollars in PMC contracts since 9/11, and that PMCers make up 62% of all forces in Afghanistan. They see interviews with Erik Prince, founder of PMC company Blackwater, as well as one with P.W. Singer, a senior fellow at Brookings Institution, a nonprofit that does research into policy solutions- he says we need more regulations of PMCs. There’s also a scene with an actual PMC, who says ‘Anyone who is any good in the army isn’t in the army anymore.’ But there is no statement about how their opinions relate to the game.
So is this even an advertisement? Vice Media says that it is, though this isn’t the first time the company has gotten heat about branded content. Gawker has accused Vice of selling out to advertisers in the past, and Vice has insisted that their ad agency, Virtue, is a separate entity from their actual content and products, telling Guardian they do not produce branded content, only ‘content sponsored by brands’.
Because the clip begins with the words, ‘In the next Call of Duty the world’s most powerful military is not a country, it’s a corporation,’ and ends with the words ‘A new era of Call of Duty is coming,’ an argument can certainly be made that this video is an ad. But it’s more likely that the ‘ad’ is a front for Vice‘s own investigation into private military contractors.
To see the clip and decide for yourself, watch the video below.
Vice // Call of Duty