Automakers are featuring their cars in video games such... Automakers are featuring their cars in video games such as Gran Turismo 5 (Autoblog).

Video games are all about exploring different worlds, from the fantasy of World of Warcraft to the science fiction of Mass Effect to the cartoons of Mario's Mushroom Kingdom. But there are plenty of games that feature at least somewhat realistic depictions of our contemporary world, with people, cities, buildings, and cars. And car manufacturers are increasingly seeing this as a marketing opportunity.

What may have started as just advertising within games, with something as innocuous as a billboard, has become more elaborate in recent years. Carmakers are doing more to integrate their products into the experiences, including making them available for purchase within the game world.

Everyone's Doing It

Volvo, for example, jumped into the online ether in September with the MyTown iPhone app. It allowed users to buy a virtual Volvo and other Volvo-branded gear while they explored an online version of their own hometown.

Nissan partnered with game developer Double Fusion in July to feature its Cube compact utility vehicle in an iPhone app game called Party Roundup, a 3D driving simulator that allows users an inside view of the vehicle. Toyota, meanwhile, is integrating its Prius products into The Sims 3, and is marketing its 4Runner SUV on the PlayStation Home platform.

Ford and GM have joined the Xbox 360 video game worlds of Alan Wake and the soon-to-be-released Joy Ride. Ford products dress out the fictional town of Bright Falls in the former, while the Chevy Volt will be one of the vehicles players can unlock and drive in the latter.

According to a recent Volvo marketing study, some 500 million people worldwide play games online, spending some three billion hours a week. Of these, about 29 percent of gamers have spent real-world money on a virtual product online. MyTown, where Volvo has been promoting its new S60 sedan, has more than 3 million registered users.

Benefits Of Virtual Marketing

While car companies have been marketing their products for decades in car racing games like Gran Turismo, the move into online virtual worlds represents the future of digital marketing.

One benefit from this new form of marketing is that it's more than just a static advertisement in the game's background. Not only can users interact with the virtual product, but those interactions can be linked to a promotional video or carmaker website. The transactional nature of these marketing efforts, where users actually "buy" the virtual goods builds ownership in the brand.

Volvo's Linda Gangeri said the strategy behind online product integration is "getting consumers to interact with the car in a new environment where people are predisposed toward cars, getting into auto dealerships and garages. For the first time in a virtual goods environment, we have the ability to deliver a branded message."

There are few barriers to entry for marketing campaigns in virtual worlds -- certainly far fewer than for regular "bricks and mortar" campaigns. Many work in conjunction with similar initiatives on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as more traditional ad spots on TV and in print. Another bonus is that the marketing campaigns needn't be extensive: Volvo's S60 campaign only lasted for a 30-day test run.

Not Just Teenagers

While conventional wisdom paints online gamers as kids or social misfits locked in their parents' basements, that's not the case. Ford's Brian McClary said it used online product integration to allow potential buyers of its Lincoln MKX luxury crossover to experience the vehicle before it appeared in showrooms. McClary says Ford's virtual world marketing efforts are directed at "not just teenagers playing in their bedrooms," except when that demographic makes sense, as in the launch of the new Ford Fiesta subcompact.

Mary Kubitskey at GM said the company is partnering with Microsoft because it wants to allow consumers to be able to get familiar with the Volt without going into a dealership, including seeing the interior and choosing colors. "The Volt is a new product and young people are going to engage with this and Chevy needs to engage with younger people," she says. "We need to evolve with the technology and be available where our consumers are available."

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