Eight times in-game adverts and product placements in games went too far

By James Billcliffe
2 January 2019 10:25 GMT

Product placement has been in games for decades – discreetly, or not so discreetly, advertising junk food and sweets to children. But as time’s gone on they’ve gotten more sophisticated, sneakier, and sillier.

Sometimes it’s just to tow the party line, like how Nathan Drake – a treasure hunter who free climbs, boxes bad guys, and falls out of planes on a daily basis – uses a Sony phone with a back made out of glass, the most breakable of all materials.

Sometimes they’re just obvious cash-ins to turn a cheap buck, like the Papa John’s sponsored races in The Crew 2.

And sometimes they’re just down-right strange – remember the time you could have the Burger King as your ringside boxing coach in Fight Night?

After Capcom decided to ruin its Street Fighter character designs by slapping Pro Tour patches over every default costume in the game – before mysteriously pulling them all recently – here are a few more of the most misjudged, weirdest, and memorable instances of product placement we can remember in games.

Dole Bananas in Super Monkey Ball

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I love to imagine the conversation that led to this partnership: “Get us in that Monkey Ball game – I won’t take no for an answer!”, the Dole executive shouts, creasing his banana-yellow business suit as he slams his fists on the curved boardroom table.

The humble banana is never far from the leathery mits of all of our favourite cartoon apes, so it’s only natural that a company would want to cash-in on that association. But I can understand wanting the same watch as Daniel Craig in Spectre or to tuck into a Pizza Hut like the Ninja Turtles, but who is seriously coming away from Super Monkey Ball with a potassium-starved lust for Dole-brand bananas?

Doritos t-shirts in Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker

The Metal Gear Solid series is no stranger to a bit of fourth wall breaking or overt product placement. There are plenty of silly ones that deserve a mention – Calorie Mate in MGS 3, which appears nearly 20 years before they were actually released, for instance – but Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker for the PSP was absolutely chock full of adverts.

These include more ironic logo t-shirts than a hundred hipster hangouts, as well as collectable cans of Mountain Dew, Axe body spray, and packets of Doritos.

One of the more palatable placements is in MGS4 – which deserves a special mention for actually adding something to the game – where a functional iPod lets you listen to developer commentary via the MGS4 Integral Podcast.

“Realistic” advertising boards in FIFA 19

“But adverts in FIFA make sense because it’s realistic,” I can hear you saying already.

One of the biggest headline updates to FIFA 19 this was the introduction of the official Champions League and Europa League licences, including fully branded presentation packages – including realistic adverts and all.

This gives rise to a massive incongruity though because, as one of the biggest advertisers with the Champions League, PlayStation ads are plastered all over the sides of the pitch – even on the Xbox One version. Surely this has to be the only time a blatant advert for a rival console has appeared on its closest competitor?

Pepsi is the only thing to survive the apocalypse in Bionic Commando

Around 2009, slap-bang in the middle of the 360/PS3 war for supremacy, there was a bit of a trend for rebooting classic characters and franchises. Batman: Arkham Asylum redefined the third-person action genre, while the revamped Wolfenstein has spawned two stellar sequels on current-gen platforms. Picking up the rear though, was Bionic Commando – a fun-enough reimagining of the 1986 NES game of the same name. I remember playing it at the time, but only because you could get it for £10 from the local GameStation.

In Bionic Commando, you’re fighting through a ruined, earthquake-ravaged city to clear your name. This means the most memorable things in a otherwise unremarkable landscape of brown rubble are the pristinely indestructible Pepsi vending machines that line that walls of many of the dilapidated buildings you swing and shoot your way through.

No matter how many bullets you fired, explosions you set off, or skyscrapers you crumbled, nothing could lay a scratch on the almighty Pepsi machines – which was definitely a stipulation of the contract.

White Mage Wedding Dresses: Designed by Vivienne Westwood in Final Fantasy (with bonus pixelated Katy Perry and Ariana Grande)

Final Fantasy has a history of frown-inducing fashion partnerships – Lightning’s fake interview about Prada is worth checking out if you fancy a good cringe – but while some are quite subtle, others are like a slap in the face from a wet, oily fish.

The best example of this in FFXV is that Noctis and crew’s punk tech-ninja outfits were designed by Japanese luxury alternative brand Roen – not that you’d know, since the game doesn’t tell you. But when you reach the Accordo capital of Altissia, there’s an entire sidequest dedicated to looking at Lunafreya’s wedding dress in the window of a heavily-branded Vivienne Westwood shop.

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It just raises so many canon questions! Does Vivienne Westwood exist in the Final Fantasy universe? Is it an alternate reality where a different person independently created the same brand?

What’s more, Final Fantasy’s mobile spin-off Brave Exvius has had some interesting pop music tie-ins recently, including tiny pixelated Katy Perrys and Ariana Grandes. Not the first artists we’d associate with 100 hour JRPGs, but why not, eh?

Nobody likes The Sims 2 H&M Fashion Stuff

There are a million-and-one cynically branded DLC packs for The Sims, but the most controversial remains The Sims 2 H&M Fashion Stuff from 2007 – which on release received this now legendary review from writer Steve Hogarty, calling the cynical cash grab out for what it was, in UK magazine PCZONE:

It’s a measure of how normalised cosmetic DLC is nowadays that 60 sets of digital clothing now seems like great value for a tenner. But publisher EA didn’t see the funny side and massively got the hump, allegedly blacklisting the publication.

It doesn’t look like The Sims do branded Stuff Packs these days, but they still cost £10 each (and there are 14 of them).

Gigi Buffon goes over the top in World of Tanks

There are a few weird sporting partnerships to come out of the “World of” games, but the appearance of legendary Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon in World of Tanks to promote their Tank Football mode during the 2018 World Cup is certainly the strangest.

Not just because Italy weren’t at the 2018 World Cup, but if you completed enough challenges in the game mode you could unlock Gigi himself as a Tank Commander that could be deployed in PvP.

It’s a pretty surreal image to picture a sportsperson piloting a war machine into battle, and has got to be one of the only instances where an actual, real-life celebrity is doing stuff in-game, and not some fictionalised version of themselves. Plus, how does he drive it with goalie gloves on?

Colonel Sanders fights sci-fi enemies on PSP

Speaking of fictionalised versions of real people, some product placements are just so bafflingly hilarious that they can start to win over even the most skeptically minded observer. One such example is the incredible decision to include KFC’s mascot and noteable Santa-lookalike Colonel Sanders as an AI Buddy in PSP hack-and-slash Phantasy Star 2 Portable.

It’s as bizarre as it sounds. It’s not a cheeky logo in the background or a branded item being used in context, but an elderly southern gentleman taking to the battlefield in an effort to flog you fried chicken. Just watch the video:

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