When Marketing to Gamers Backfires

Marketing towards gamers is often awkward and ham-handed. In late 2012, for example, the image below caused some frothing in the gaming community.


That’s video game personality, journalist, and show host Geoff Keighley sitting next to a pile of Doritos (“nacho cheese” flavored), Mountain Dew (“red” flavored), and a co-branded poster for Halo 4. Some people used the image to call Keighley’s journalistic integrity into question 1 but what bugged me about it was how the PepsiCo people were going about marketing this stuff. By taking a gaming celebrity –supposedly the epitome of a “true” gamer who is an expert on the hobby– and surrounding him with Mountain Dew and Doritos, the idea was that this is the kind of food you should like if you’re a gamer.

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. There has been a lot of consumer psychology research in the last couple of decades showing that tying a product to a person’s identity can be very effective.2 You can easily argue that Apple has made a killing in marketing an identity to go with their products. Most of their recent advertising campaigns don’t even mention hardware specifications; they just talk about what kind of person you can be if you own their little doo-dad. Apple’s famous “Think Different” ad from 1997 lauded the crazy “square pegs in round holes” characters like Albert Einstein, Bob Dylan, Martin Luther King Jr., and Pablo Picasso. In a way, this is very similar to Keighley’s ad for Doritos and Mountain Dew except in Apple’s case there’s not even a product in sight –just a bunch of people and the Apple logo. But the message is clear: buy our stuff and you will be a misunderstood genius, too. I’m reminded of this every time I see someone sporting an iPhone case with a conspicuous hole in it that serves no other purpose than letting the Apple logo on the back of the phone show through.

Some companies, though, are so bold as to define what it means to be a gamer and tie it to using their product. Gamefly, the rent-by-mail service for game disks, had the claim that “You call yourself a gamer? You HAVE to have this service” as the tagline for one of its commercials.

Even worse is “Gamer Grub.” Their website pitches plastic pouches of Pizza and PB&J flavored …Goo? Kibbles? I’m not sure, but their aim is to relieve gamers of the decidedly non-radical process of chewing. The marketing makes it clear that if you’re a gamer, this is what you should eat: “the first performance snack formulated especially for gamers” 3

Some recent research by Amit Bhattacharjee, Jonah Berger, and Geeta Menon published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Consumer Research4 shows how this kind of marketing can backfire, as in the case of Gamefly’s “You have to have this or you’re not a real gamer” message. The researchers argue that while we do prefer products that reinforce parts our identities –especially when that identity is somehow made more salient– we have to feel like it’s us deciding that the product reinforces our identity, not the marketing. In fact, if the advertising or marketing message tries too hard to explicitly link our group identity to the act of buying or using the product, it can backfire and we are less likely to buy it.

I think this is the "BBQ" flavor according to Gamer Grub's website.

I think this is the “BBQ” flavor according to Gamer Grub’s website.

Bhattacharjee and his colleagues did a series of experiments where they manipulated whether or not the marketing language explicitly tied the product to an identity or membership in a group. For example, consider the following pairs of messages used in ads for DirectTV’s sports packages and Charlie’s All Purpose Soap, an environmentally friendly cleanser:

  1. “If you call yourself a sports fan, you gotta have DirectTV!”
  2. “DirectTV. All the sports you love, all in one place.”
  1. “Charlie’s: The only good choice for green consumers.”
  2. “Charlie’s: A good choice for green consumers.”

The first statement in each pair explicitly ties the use of the product to membership in an identity-defining group. The second simply references that identity.

The results were consistent across five experiments: if you highlight the influence of external factors (like the marketing) on brand/identity relationships, people will reject them more often than if you allow them to make those associations under their own agency. In the case of the Charlie’s soap messages, those who saw the second pitch were, on average, a full point higher on a 5-point “Purchase Likelihood” scale: 2.74 vs. 3.78. That’s huge when you’re talking about thousands of potential customers.

We need to feel that WE are deciding that a certain product –a soft drink, a snack chip, or a video game console– is placing us in a group that defines our identity. Don’t try to shove us into an identity-defining group. Only we can shove ourselves into an identity-defining group. I suspect this has implications beyond marketing, too. Other appeals to tribalism like “you’re only a true gamer if you play on the PC” or “You’re not a real gamer if you you’ve never been to PAX” or even “Only casuals play that character in DOTA” are likely to fall flat for the same reasons.

Besides, I prefer Cool Ranch Doritos.


1. Most notably This piece on Eurogamer, but honestly I think one can draw his/her own conclusions simply by watching the video. It is not subtle. My favorite part is where Keighley responds to “If you were trapped on an island and could only eat Doritos or drink Mountain Dew, which would you choose?” with “That’s a really good question.”
2. e.g., for a summary: Escalas, J., & Bettman, J. (2005). Self‐Construal, Reference Groups, And Brand Meaning. Journal of Consumer Research,32(3), 378-389.
4. Bhattacharjee, A., Berger, J., & Menon, G. (2014). When Identity Marketing Backfires: Consumer Agency in Identity Expression. Journal of Consumer Research, 41.

9 thoughts on “When Marketing to Gamers Backfires

  1. Free will is an illusion!
    I may have seriously been considering ordering Gamer Grub, not Ironically. I just want dumb food with dumb advertisements. Like, I ate oatmeal for the first time in like two years after Max Temkin’s fake PWNMEAL advertising at PAX. I don’t know who I am.

    (Ya don’t need that “relieves” in there.)

  2. Part of the reason the first statements tend to push people away is not just the obvious connection, but also the implication.

    This “gamer-grub” is processed, carb-filled, artificially-flavored garbage. Mountain dew is no better. The implication is that doritos and mountain dew are the nutritional equivalent of how the marketers perceive games. Just as how natural foods are picked up by people educated enough to be interested in investing in their own health, the idea is that “Games already pollute the minds of these filth, maybe we can persuade them to treat their body the same way!”

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  4. Marketing is such a BS industry. I do think they are partly the reason why men have problems accepting female gamers because of the messages they pushed and the outdated data they use for their promotional campaigns back when video games were trying to survive in the ’80s.

  5. While I don’t want to sound insulting, the Dorito’s/Mountain Dew ad is targeted to someone like Jamie Willmott mentioned. Easily impressionable/influenciable people. That also means that it’s easier to target people with a low threshold of influence tolerance. AKA dumb people. In that way, it works.
    And again, I do not want to sound insulting, but gaming communities are full of idiots. Just take a look at the most popular channel on YouTube or check Steam forums. Mostly because half of them are underage kids… these are just hard facts.

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  8. These are “outside jobs”, though, created by marketing firms who are no doubt using stereotypes of what they THINK gamers are going to want in order to craft their message.

    What about “inside jobs”? Look at the ads section of a magazine like CPU, where they advertise all of the hardware to the readers of the magazine, who are PC hardware aficionados. The prevailing message is of “domination” and “crushing” and other violent, testosterone-fueled words and phrases trying to essentially do the same thing as the Doritos and Dew, but from companies that know their demographic intimately, and who would be the ones who appreciate the purpose of a magazine like CPU.

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