Xbox One Source promotion misleads, misfires

Microsoft's super-sized Xbox One marketing campaign insulting to fans' intelligence

[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.


It's a good thing people pledged enough gamertags before the scheduled reveal time!

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?


Barbarians emerge from the Xbox One in Toronto.

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.

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Latest comments (16)

Sean Kauppinen Founder & CEO, IDEA4 years ago
Sounds like the street team was poorly trained or not following protocol. It's important to consider that MSFT most likely used an agency or contractor to organize this and although MSFT is ultimately responsible, the street team organizers are the ones that mis-led and likely didn't get the info back to their client in a timely manner. It might warrant further investigation Brendan.
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Keith Andrew Freelance Journalist, Keith Andrew Media4 years ago
"Marketing is full of lies, half-truths, and attempted manipulation."

No, it's really, really, really, really not. BAD marketing is. But, I do think you've got a bee in your bonnet about very little here. In the UK, Sony has been giving PS4s away to notable Premiership football stars, providing they tweet a picture of it with the hashtag #4TheGamers.

This, for me, is a far bigger deal. Not only is giving away consoles to the one group of people who can afford to buy several thousand of them at once incredibly lazy - celebrity endorsements should be targeted, not just signed up for free tweets - but it also goes completely against what Sony is trying to achieve. If PS4 is genuinely 'for the gamers' in a way its competitors aren't, then give those consoles to the gamers. Or, better, if PlayStation is 'for the indies', give them away to some developers.

To push out free consoles to multi-millionaires in exchange for tweets is as pathetic as it is depressing, is yet another case of bad marketing in action and, frankly, makes Microsoft's big-Xbox-One stunt look rather small and insignificant indeed.
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Barrie Tingle Live Producer, Maxis4 years ago
So it insults players intelligence by having them take part in crowd based marketing and having people talking about the console?

Next you will be saying Lynx/Axe doesn't get you swarms of ladies after you...

It is advertising, it isn't meant to be clever, it is meant to get people talking and just by writing the article you have proven it worked.
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Show all comments (16)
Brendan Sinclair North American Editor, GamesIndustry.biz4 years ago
@Keith I suppose I'm more offended by being lied to than by watching someone in a position of privilege receive a perk that I never had any claim to in the first place. We all have different buttons, though.
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Robin Clarke Producer, AppyNation Ltd4 years ago
I don't think there's ever been a high profile consumer electronics launch that hasn't involved celebrities being given units free, Keith. Or is it the pretense that the footballers had to 'trade' a tweet to get one what you take issue with?
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Brendan Sinclair North American Editor, GamesIndustry.biz4 years ago
@Sean Definitely a good point. I asked Microsoft Canada about it, but they've been understandably busy, what with this whole Xbox One launch and all. If they wind up getting back to me, I'll include their response as an update at the bottom of the piece.
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James Berg Games User Researcher, EA Canada4 years ago
I live in Vancouver, and signed up (MS already has my info, so whatever), and didn't even realize anything had happened. Didn't recall getting an email about it or anything, so failed pretty hard there.
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Kieren Bloomfield Software Engineer, EA Sports4 years ago
Zombies in Vancouver? Never seen that before. Oh wait, no we get that EVERY year...
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Keith Andrew Freelance Journalist, Keith Andrew Media4 years ago
@Brendan: It's not a question of the perk - it's about being true to the brand. Handing out free machines to celebrities is not only lazy - and almost certainly will have zero impact - but it says just how far we can throw the '4ThePlayers' mantra.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Keith Andrew on 20th November 2013 5:55pm

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Keith Andrew Freelance Journalist, Keith Andrew Media4 years ago
@Robin Not at all. If you're launching an aspirational brand - a high class car, an expensive perfume - then giving your product to millionaire celebrities is a valid strategy, providing you choose the right ones. What annoys me about this trick is that it goes entirely against the way Sony is looking to pitch PS4 - 4ThePlayers is a brilliant tag, and a fantastic response to the criticisms of MS's media-focused approach with Xbox One.

This tactic, however, just doesn't fit. It annoys me because people who are being paid a lot of money to do their job properly - to convey the brand - just aren't. They're pulling cheap stunts like this.
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Pete Thompson Editor 4 years ago
The article reads like a toys swiftly thrown out of the pram moment... We can all find something to rant about, and indeed gamer's are known for it., there's a time and a place though..

And as mentioned already a can of Lynx deodorant doesn't guarantee that you'll be swarmed with scantily clad women when you use it as the adverts would imply, and sad to say it and maybe shatter any illusions, but drinking a can of Red Bull won't actually give you wings.. ;-)
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 4 years ago
If you see an over the top commercial these days, the advert is fully aware of its madness. That's why it is thousands of women in bikinis swarming the guy spraying Axe on himself, instead of one. It is not expected of the audience to take it at face value, just be entertained and maybe get a dumb thing you could say out of it; e.g. the man your man could smell like.

In contrast, this MS promotion seems like it is taking itself too serious and has rather high expectations regarding how the audience is supposed to react. If it is easier to get on a plane with a working 18th century musket, than to partake in a street promotion, then something is wrong.

Case and point the PS4 launch trailer. Sure, it depicts reality in an over the top way. For entertainment sake. The Xbox One trailer does the same with killer robots crashing meetings and Zombies interrupting college studies. By comparison, hustling people in the streets for emails is not entertainment, it's hustling. Your not being an entertainer, you are being a huckster. What's the last thing you bought from a huckster?
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Peter Dwyer Games Designer/Developer 4 years ago
This peace simply strikes me as someone trying very hard to find a topic to taint Microsoft's XBox One launch. My obvious question is why?
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Here's a good rule of thumb. If any semi professional dressed person comes up to you with either a clipboard or tablet and asks you if you have a minute... SAY NO.
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James Gallagher Marketing Manager, Futuremark Corporation4 years ago
Brendan, opinion or not, your statement that "Marketing is full of lies, half-truths, and attempted manipulation" is a ridiculous assertion. I might just as well claim that it's "pretty much a given" that journalism is full of sensationalist headlines, rumour masquerading as fact, and non-existent crises manufactured purely for the purpose of, you guessed it, selling advertising. But I won't say that because it would be as unfair to the majority of journalists as your statement is to the majority of marketers.
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David Serrano Freelancer 4 years ago
@James Gallagher
Brendan, opinion or not, your statement that "Marketing is full of lies, half-truths, and attempted manipulation" is a ridiculous assertion.
It is not a ridiculous assertion, Brendan simply failed to use the correct terminology to validate the assertion.

In theory, the purpose of marketing, advertising and promotion is to inform potential buyers. But in reality, the purpose and goal of most marketing, advertising and promotion is now simply to increase the likelihood of the potential buyer making an adverse selection. A purchasing decision or financial commitment he or she would not have made if all the relevant information about the product or service had been fully or truthfully disclosed by the marketer or advertiser.

So Brendan was not incorrect in stating that marketing is filled with half-truths because information asymmetry is largely about intentionally withholding highly relevant facts and information. Brendan was not incorrect about advertisers and marketers attempting to manipulate potential buyers since most forms of lifestyle marketing are about manipulating how potential buyers perceive a product or service by directly associating unrelated concepts, qualities and themes with them. And marketers and advertisers play the same game with facts as lawyers: they will bend, distort, exaggerate and manipulate them far as the law allows... and in some cases beyond the legal boundary. Which is why every year companies like Skechers, Reebok, Oreck, Taco Bell (to name a few) settle on intentionally false and misleading advertising cases brought against them. So Brendan was not entirely incorrect about marketing being full of lies.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by David Serrano on 21st November 2013 8:11pm

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