[The following is an editorial piece reflecting the personal opinions of its author.]
Marketing is full of lies, half-truths, and attempted manipulation. It's pretty much a given at this point, and there's not a whole lot to be gained from expressing outrage that your neighbors won't really envy your new minivan, or that Axe shower gel doesn't really make women sexually available to any man with a pulse. But if consumers cannot realistically expect honesty from the marketing they consume, they should at least be able to get a modicum of respect.
This is where the gigantic Xbox One Source campaign from Microsoft Canada falls short. Even if you're not in Canada, you might have seen coverage of the campaign, which has revolved around novelty-size Xbox Ones (supposedly 40 feet in length) appearing first in a parking lot in Vancouver, then in Montreal, and most recently in Toronto. As far as attention-getting stunts go, the campaign has been tremendously successful, with coverage on The Huffington Post, The Verge, and a host of gaming sites and blogs. But when it comes to respecting its audience, the campaign has fallen short.
According to Microsoft Canada's press announcements, "the Canadian Xbox Live community can come together to power on and unlock incredible one-of-a-kind experiences and rewards by pledging their gamertags to the project known as One Source. Every gamertag pledged will contribute to unlocking these experiences."
My wife and I were in Montreal earlier this month in advance of the Montreal International Game Summit, so we decided to check out the second leg of this campaign, a plus-sized Xbox One in a parking lot on De la Montagne street between Sainte-Catherine and René-Lévesque one Saturday night. As far as "one-of-a-kind experiences" go, it was underwhelming. It was a giant box in a parking lot with a couple of cling stickers on it, one for the Xbox One logo and another for the disc slot. I wondered whether this was the same monstrosity Microsoft unveiled in Vancouver, or if it was more cost effective to build a second one on the other side of the country.
We were flagged down by one of the Microsoft street team. The man insisted that he needed our help, that something would happen with the box as soon as they had enough e-mail addresses from passersby and they were ever-so-close, with 92 percent of the required support needed already committed. (He made no mention of gamertags.) When they hit the vague requisite amount of "support" from people, something wonderful would happen with the Xbox One, we were assured.
The idea was absurd, as if their big marketing event couldn't go forward if people didn't give them enough email addresses. No, they wanted contact information, and they weren't bothered collecting it under false pretenses. We were told that by giving them an email address, we would be sent a link that would allow us to enter a contest for a fabulous trip to exotic Toronto for the launch of the Xbox One. That email arrived two weeks later, four days after the deadline had passed for entries to be eligible for that Toronto trip. On top of that, the only means of entry were to either go on Xbox Live and enter one's gamertag (my wife has none, and has no wish to become an Xbox Live subscriber) or to write down her personal information and "a 50-word story about what excites you the most about Xbox One®," and then mail it in, quite possibly putting its delivery after the deadline for even the lesser prizes.
That doesn't sting so much, considering we live in Toronto and see how exotic it is every day (insert Rob Ford joke here), but it's still galling to have our personal information solicited under false pretenses. We were never told at the event that we would have to sign up for a separate service. And we certainly weren't told that we would never have a chance to win the trip because they wouldn't e-mail us instructions on how to enter until half a week after their own deadline.
It didn't help that the promotion was--in addition to deceptive--insulting to our intelligence. Having already known what happened with the Vancouver Xbox One (a bunch of zombies and a dude in coveralls jumped out to promote Dead Rising 3), I was fairly confident that this Montreal Xbox One would open up to reveal a meaningless cosplay exercise for another Xbox One launch title, with people able to go into the box and briefly try the system in the aftermath. I guessed Ryse; it turned out to be Forza (Crytek's launch exclusive wound up being the big reveal for the campaign-capping Toronto event). But knowing the rough shape of the endgame for this Xbox One, I knew it was by no means an event left to chance. There was no way Microsoft was going to pay a slew of centurions (or ersatz F1 racers) to sit in a giant Xbox One all weekend just waiting until they reached some arbitrary number of email addresses collected (or "gamertags pledged," as Microsoft put it).
From a marketing perspective, it makes no sense to play fair, to abide by the numbers, especially considering Microsoft allowed people to pledge their gamertags online. If the support goal were reached during off-peak hours, or with nobody around to see, was Microsoft going to have those paid actors going to jump out and run through their skit anyway? If that goal were never reached, were they going to cancel the promotion entirely?
Of course not. Instead, you're going to send the press a heads up on Saturday night at 10 p.m. saying that, "Based on the current rate of pledges, we anticipate the console will power on just before 1:00 p.m.!" You're going to control everything. You're going to make sure there's a crowd around so your scattering of press photographs look good, so people are convinced that you made an "event" out of nothing, out of a large black box in a parking lot having a couple guys dressed like race car drivers walk out next to a fast car and a flurry of confetti.
My anger here is not at Microsoft's marketing for wanting to get the most bang for its buck, or for wanting to control the situation. It's at the ham-handed attempt at engagement. It's at the way they tried to manufacture a virality to the campaign, telling them their participation in the promotion was somehow key to the big pay-off. This perfectly valid idea--of giant Xboxes showing up across the country and revealing their mystery contents one at a time--could have been structured in a way that didn't demean its target audience, that didn't treat them as a faceless mob of unthinking saps. But because someone didn't think about it, or thought about it and decided it didn't matter if they lied to their customers, or just wanted to cross "user engagement" off the project checklist, we're stuck with this thoroughly depressing exercise instead.
Given the impressions the campaign received (and the ones this article will generate for it), Xbox One Source will likely go down as a success. Despite that, it saddens me to think that such disrespectful treatment of the consumers the company relies upon would be rewarded on any level. The way this campaign has been executed is not just insulting to its fans' intelligence; it borders on contempt. Again, that might be common to much of the marketing we are subjected to on a daily basis, but this sort of shoddy treatment of customers should be treated with disdain and indignation, not acceptance and resignation.