The 12 ways games can be used to advertise

In this post, we look at all the different ways games can promote brands.

The way we define these concepts here often overlaps, and besides that, not everyone uses the terms in the same way.

Types of Advertising

Non-digital Advergames

Games have been used to promote products long before digital games existed. We explored this topic in Non-digital advergames; another interesting article with many older examples is Advertising Games & Premiums.

One type of game that blurs the line between advergame and non-digital advergame is the alternative reality game (ARG). This type of game, as Wikipedia puts it, “is an interactive narrative that uses the real world as a platform, often involving multiple media and game elements, to tell a story that may be affected by participants’ ideas or actions.” The first ARG used to promote a product was The Beast, developed by Microsoft for the movie A.I. Artificial Intelligence.

Banner Ads

Banner ads are ads placed on the main game screen of the game. They are the game version of web-banner ads.

These ads have problems: 60% of clicks are accidental (see also Half the number of online ad clicks are by mistake, says a Silicon Valley veteran). Also, while unintentional clicks can be disruptive to any activity, they are especially annoying in games where they can make you lose or die or miss a disappearing powerup. Many platforms such as Google and Facebook have measures to counteract this issue, but it remains a problem (PDF).

Banner ads in games share their large number of problems with banner ads on the web. See Banner ads have 99 problems and a click aint one of them for a list.

Relevance improves the effectiveness of any advertising, so the most effective banner ads in games are advertising other games.


These are ads on dialogs that pop-up during play. As with banner ads, players often click on these by accident. These popups are more disruptive than banner ads because they interrupt the player’s attention. Some ads have annoyingly small close buttons, or they change how they look or where they are between different showings, making it more likely the player will accidentally click on the ad instead of successfully closing in.

Interstitial Ads

These are ads that appear between different screens in the game, for example, between levels. They are less disruptive than in-game popups since they don’t interrupt normal flow. 

Reward Ads

These are ads – usually video ads – that players can watch in reward for in-game benefits, such as currency, an extra life, more choices, or power-ups. Reward ads are one of the most effective ways of advertising; they don’t disrupt normal gameplay (and in fact, can even become part of the gameplay strategy). Reward-based marketing has been effectively used long before the digital age. What sets rewards ads used in games apart is that the rewards are virtual.

That players will spend money (more than 15 billion per year) and change their behavior for virtual benefits has many interesting consequences. Some of these are explored in Virtual Economies Are Exploding: Here’s What Is Next. Reward ads have benefits for players, publishers, and advertisers — see Rewarded Video Ads: A Complete Overview, Benefits & Ad Specs — but like other in-game formats, you are competing with other brands, and relevance is often an issue; stats hide how many of the successful advertising is for other games and therefore overestimate the success for non-game brands.

In-game Billboard Ads

Game worlds can contain billboards and posters which advertise real-world brands. These ads are most common in sports games or games with cityscapes that reflect their use in real-life. See The Evolution of Advertising in Sports Video Games.

Product Placement

Product placement is putting a game-presentation of a product in a game. Like in-game billboards, product placement is typical in sports games (see for example Fifa, product placement and the future of ads in video games), but can happen in any game genre. For example, Subway featured in Uncharted 3, Pepsi in Bionic Commando, Mercedes Benz in Mario Kart 8,

When a game has too much product placement and other advertising, players start to dislike it. See for example ‘NBA 2K19’ and other sports games have gone overboard with ads — and it’s ruining the fun.

Product placement in video games can (usually) not be automated through advertising networks and must be negotiated for each game.

Playable Ads


Playable ads appear in places where banner ads usually appear. They differ from traditional ads in that they are interactive and are, in fact, games that can be played.

Interactive Google doodles are examples (although these promote topics or people rather than brands). See Users Say These Are the Best Google Doodle Games Ever or all Google’s interactive doodles.

Playable ads often offer very short play-time, and because so many are white-label games of popular genres, they tend to be bland and forgettable. Some playable ads are made to be played full-screen (typically on mobile), and blur the lines between playable ads and advergames.

In-app games

Sometimes games are included in other apps. Examples include McDonald’s McPlay and Circle K’s app that contains Spin & Win. Because of the sheer number of brands, the competition among brands to have their app on users’ mobile devices is harsh; a game can often tip the scale by increasing retention, especially combined with prizes. We describe this in How games oil your c-store loyalty machine.


Advergames are games used to promote brands. They differ from playable ads and in-app games in that they are not usually embedded in other content, but function on their own. For this reason, advergames need to be promoted, often through the brands owned channels.

We compiled a long list of advergames that give some information about each game, including industry, brand, genre, and platform. You can also read our Four decades of advergames or Avoid these 50 mistakes when you make an advergame.

Push Notifications

You will not usually be able to send push notifications through other publishers games, but it is possible to send push notifications through your own apps, including games. Using push notifications for advertising works well when it makes sense (for example, to announce a promotion in a loyalty app), but can backfire if the push-notification and app don’t align. For this reason, it is useful to combine a game and a loyalty-type app; we have written how this works in How games oil your c-store loyalty machine.


“Esports (also known as electronic sports, e-sports, or eSports) is a form of competition using video games. Esports often takes the form of organized, multiplayer video game competitions, particularly between professional players, individually or as teams.” — Esports Wikipedia.

In 2018, there were 380 million esports watchers. See The Incredible Growth of eSports in 2019 [+ 2019 eSports Stats]. The popularity of esports open up all the marketing possibilities that ordinary sports have: 

  • Sponsorship of players, tournaments, or venues.
  • Ads played during broadcasted or streamed matches. 

See also Are you game?, which examines the culture, history and marketing opportunities of esports.

Beyond Advertising


Gamification takes ordinary activities (like walking or buying coffee), and ads mechanisms to them that are normally associated with games, such as points, leaderboards, and rewards. These features play an important role in games (we analyze this in detail in How points, leaderboards, and badges change the way players play), and they can indeed make customers more loyal or make dreadful activities more bearable. However, we have argued that gamification is not always the solution and contrasted gamification with using games for marketing.

Gamification predates the digital era. For a thorough timeline, see The History of Gamification: From the very beginning to right now.

Serious games

Serious games (also called applied games or persuasive games) are games designed for a purpose other than pure entertainment. There are several subcategories, and one of these (persuasive games) include advergames as a subgroup.

  • Persuasive games: Games meant to promote ideas, political parties, people, or brands. See Persuasive Games: Exploitationware or the book Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Video Games by the same author.
  • Exercise games: Also called exergames or gamercise, these are video games that employ some form of physical movement as exercise or coordination training. Wii Sports and Dance Dance Revolution are well-known examples. See also Exergaming (Wikipedia).
  • Educational games: Games meant to teach concepts to children or adults. Popular examples include Math BlasterImmune Attack, and Food Force. Many entertainment games are built on knowledge principles or history, and can be considered educational. Examples include Kerbal Space Program or the Civilization series.
  • Training games: Games meant to train people, usually through simulation. ForgeFX has several examples on their site, including games to teach players how to operate medical equipment or vehicles used in mining. Walmart’s Spark City was developed to train store managers.
  • Art games: Games made as Art, usually meant to express some idea. An example is Walden, “an exploratory narrative and open world simulation of the life of American philosopher Henry David Thoreau…” Art games often stretch the notion of what a game is, and many art games are not fun. On the other hand, some entertainment games with a strong message (such as Papers Please) or highly unique features or style (such as Ōkami) are sometimes classified as art games.

Licensed Games

Games that feature very popular content created outside the game – sports teams, celebrities, toys, comic book characters – have to license the rights to use them. The inclusion of the content drive game sales, and in this sense they usually work in the opposite direction as advergames. Famous examples include the Spiderman video game series, the FIFA video game series, the LEGO games, and Kim Kardashian: Hollywood.


Games offer many possibilities for promoting brands. If you want us to help you figure out what is right for you, please book a free consultation.