He’s a popular soccer player, a star in the English Premier League with millions of followers. Alex Hunter also is neither human nor absolutely real. But he has become the first virtual athlete to ink an endorsement deal with a global brand behemoth: Coca-Cola.
Hunter, thus, becomes a brand ambassador for a conglomerate that long has been a superstar in the endorsement game a long time. Several generations have grown up watching Coke commercials on broadcasts or at the movies or hearing its ads and jingles on the radio. These spots have been just part of Coke’s multi-channel advertising and marketing programs, some memorable and successful, others not so much.
Corporations like Coke, however, have gained significant traction by tapping celebrity power, dealing with established stars who already have built giant fan bases and getting them to endorse their brand. Such deals have become bread-and-butter considerations for Entertainment Law practitioners to consider with their clients. In 2013, Pepsi signed a $50-million dollar deal with Beyoncé as a brand ambassador; Diet Coke hired Taylor Swift in a big-dollar agreement to serve as the ad face for Diet Coke. Pro jocks, meantime, have competed as hard off the field as on to win endorsement deals and to become big brands’ champions: Who wouldn’t want to be like Ronaldo, LeBron (James), Lionel (Messi), Roger (Federer) or Kevin (Durant), who each and all are estimated to generate more than $25 million annually from sponsors.
But companies take some huge risks and can endure some significant inconvenience when they stake big money in stars, especially athletes. The demands might seem low: Shoot some commercials a few minutes long. Get in the can a grand total of maybe 10 minutes of footage to be aired throughout the year. Show up a few times for a brand event. Garner some coverage on the celebrity’s social media channels. This all can be a challenge enough, working around a hectic star schedule. Then, of course, there’s the possibility that a scandal or misstep can take torch a brand and its marquee name, as happened, say, with Lance Armstrong, Michael Vick, or Ray Rice.
So why not bank of virtual jock, a “person” unlikely to go down in the flames of human fallibility?
A Safer Bet?
FIFA 17 introduced Alex Hunter to video gamers as an automatic star with an immersive, compelling story. It helped him that he scored his first endorsement deal in FIFA 17 with Adidas.
But in his cyber world upgrade, FIFA 18, his promoters took Hunter to a whole new level. In the newest version of the video game, players as Alex can earn a Coke endorsement as one of their major achievements. Navigating the game to score such a deal is just part of video games’ challenge-reward system: Racking up a Coke sponsorship mid-game gives players more online affirmation, including more options in the game and feel-good endorphins.
How does the Real Thing fare with Hunter and its role in this video game deal? It gets a bullet-proof endorsement deal, legally speaking: Coke won’t have to sweat whether Hunter might get busted for abusing drugs, people, or animals. He won’t get caught in tawdry situations or making inappropriate comments Tweets or Instagram posts.
Most endorsement contracts hold morality clauses, meant to protect companies from humans’ woes, allowing organizations to terminate celebrity deals due to offenses against public or corporate sensibilities. Terminations can prove costly to companies that have sunk big resources into a star.
Hunter won’t offer any such negative surprises for Coke or any major Madison Avenue agencies handling similar new, virtual brand ambassadors. Not only are their lives fully scripted and controlled, Coke, for one, also gets the equivalent of a 15-hour ad—the amount of time FIFA 18 players are estimated to interact with Hunter and thereby be exposed to the Coke brand.
A world in control
The virtual star also comes with some other key attributes worth at least a fast mention. For marketers, a major struggle these days involves placing ads not only for massive exposure but also across multiple channels, accessible on a variety of screens and devices. Besides securing audience “eyeballs” and attention, corporate sponsors also hope for customer focus. They want the viewing of their big ad buys to occur without distraction. It doesn’t help mattress makers or car dealers if broadcast viewers, for example, record hit shows, in large part so they can fast-forward past costly commercials. Advertisers can go nuts that the cord-cutting members of Generation X stream their shows, again to avoid ads. Social media seemed to offer more promise with its targeted ads. But many of those channels are filled now with so many annoying promotions that users are responding with screening and blocking software.
Compare that with the impressions that can be made in the silo of a video game, for which a customer shells out $40 to $50 to start. In the immersive world of FIFA 18, for example, Coke becomes the exclusive and only brand. It not only gets placement and exposure, the product itself is celebrated, too, as something to be desired and won during a long period of game play.
It sounds like an advertising dream, right? Let’s see …