Back in the early 2000s one company ruled when it came to getting attention. From pigeons trained to ruin Wimbledon to people paid to change their names to Turok, Acclaim was the king of press-baiting PR.
It’s likely you’ve heard mention of some of Acclaim’s more famous campaigns. Talk of putting game adverts on gravestones, paying for people’s speeding tickets, or legal name changes to promote video games regularly top list features about crazy PR stunts. But here’s the thing: ten years on, those ‘bad’ ideas are still talked about, and if anyone remembers 2002’s Shadow Man 2, it’s not because they played it.
Acclaim’s supernatural sequel had perhaps the most reviled PR campaign of them all. “The idea was people could offset the cost of the funeral of a loved one in return for putting a small advert on the headstone of their beloved,” explains Andrew Bloch, the founder and MD of Frank PR, the team behind Acclaim’s marketing. “Shadowman was this dark game about the afterlife and it was trying to reflect the nature of the game, so we called it ‘deadvertising.’ It was in slightly dubious taste but the thing that amazed me was that, actually, people did write in and email and want to have it done.”
At the time (and even now) ideas like this drew everything from laughs to scorn, disgust and outrage. But there was a clear plan behind the madness, as explained by another team member who’s asked not to be named. Let’s call them Turok. “Budgets were tight, so it was easier to invest in PR and try to create word of mouth, rather than spread our marketing budget too thin and not make an impact,” they explain. “All the ideas were cheap to create from a concept perspective and scalable depending on how far we went.”
That idea of maximising bang for buck is something Andrew agrees with. “Acclaim was a small publisher, so you were having to compete against the might of an Activision or an EA without the same budgets. You can’t play the same game, you have to think differently.”
There was one other motive behind this ‘creative’ PR. “You had games that, being blunt, weren’t particularly good,” shrugs Andrew. “They weren’t getting amazing reviews. So the thinking from a PR perspective was ‘how can we not rely too much on the reviews, and get outside of the gaming pages and create attention?’ If [the games] hadn’t got the attention they did, they would have gone straight into the bargain bin, never played. But it worked: they were getting unprecedented attention off the back of the publicity [and] out-performing sales expectations.”
“We always tried to push the boundaries to the point where we didn’t offend or upset but did create controversy and that was always the intention. Sometimes you got it a little over the line…”
Newspaper-fuelled moral outrage and the resultant ‘better-than-expected’ sales became Acclaim’s calling card. Creating ideas that offended or provoked indignant outrage, or sometimes just beggared belief, was an easy way of generating buzz. “When we announced advertising on gravestones we did get a backlash from the church, which was understandable,” explains Turok. “I remember one local paper ran a full front page with the headline ‘Tomb Raiders’ which really helped spread the word. We came out the same weekend as Metal Gear [Solid 2] so we needed to do something, as that was everywhere.”
Burnout was another Acclaim series to benefit from some… unusual ideas. The first game had unwittingly garnered attention for using the same driving advisor who’d trained Princess Diana in advanced driving skills. The second game, however, courted more deliberate controversy. Playing off the idea that the racer would make people want “to get into a car and drive fast,” the PR team concocted the idea that they would offer to pay any speeding tickets gamers might clock up on the day of release. Unsurprisingly, it was “met with uproar and disapproval” says Andrew, with Turok adding, “we even had calls from the government complaining.”
The pair are both clear on one thing here: it was a stunt and not an offer that was ever going to be seen though. “Our plan was always to retract it the day before launch,” explains Andrew. So the outrage simply played into that plan. “We were never going to go ahead and do it, for the reason the government said: it was irresponsible. It was encouraging people potentially to speed without any liability. We never wanted to be responsible for that, never wanted to encourage people to drive stupidly.”
While the various campaigns repeatedly caused a frothing outrage from certain quarters, the team were never as irresponsible as the Daily Mail stories might have made out. “The key to any sort of controversial publicity is you have to think through the end result and the consequences of what you’re doing,” says Andrew. “You have to do it in a strategic way. You can’t be irresponsible and go off and do stuff because it’s fun. You have to think things through and work out what you want to achieve. I think we also had the philosophy that the more outraged you could make the Daily Mail, the more likely it was going to have a positive impact on sales. We always tried to push the boundaries to the point where we didn’t offend or upset but did create controversy and that was always the intention. Sometimes you got it a little over the line but overall we got it about right.”
“I spent a night driving a skater who skitched on the car up the Finchley Road at 50 mph trying to set off the speed camera…”
Some ideas were less controversial but still memorable. Turok recalls a campaign for also-ran Tony Hawk rival, Aggressive Inline. “I spent a night driving a skater who skitched on the car up the Finchley Road at 50 mph trying to set off the speed camera to make it look like it was the new craze influenced by the game. He was a pro skater and his dad didn’t mind. He was more worried about the car, as we used his!” It’s something Andrew remembers well because the speed camera was outside his flat at the time. “Some of the neighbours thought it was a bit mental. It was an amusing night. A group of journalists came down and captured the moment and it became talked about.”
Other ideas were clearly just ridiculous PR stunts. Like the offer of cash and games to anyone willing to change their name to Turok (to celebrate the release of the fourth game in the series, Evolution). That drew a surprising amount of global attention. “Five people actually did do it and change their name by deed poll,” claims Andrew.
Then there were the insane ideas. Like the plan to disrupt Wimbledon with trained pigeons for Virtua Tennis 2. It’s a favourite of Andrews. “We came up with a concept called ‘Billbird advertising.’ Wimbledon is quite famous for the pigeons that occasionally fly on court. You know what it’s like at Wimbledon, it doesn’t take a lot to amuse the crowds. So we thought it would be fun to take a group of homing pigeons, paint the Virtua Tennis logo on their wings and train them to fly into Wimbledon and flap their logo wings in front of centre court crowds.”
As crazy as it sounds, people bit. “We did some publicity around it, we invited media down to see the homing pigeons being trained,” says Andrew. “This caused much disgust among Wimbledon officials who sent out a press release to say they were training their hawks to hunt down the pigeons and [they] would be killed. It got talked about on the BBC, on the Wimbledon commentary, and in every single national newspaper. You couldn’t hope for better publicity.”
“We thought it would be fun to take a group of homing pigeons, paint the Virtua Tennis logo on their wings and train them to fly into Wimbledon.”
For all the scorn and frowning, there’s no argument that it worked. The campaigns are still remembered and everyone I spoke to (not all of whom wanted to go on record) remembered the time fondly.
It’s a different world these days, however. Ten-ish years isn’t a long time in the grand scheme of things, but a lot has changed. “In those days it was all about the forums and it was amazing to light the touch paper and stand back. Acclaim was the publisher you loved to hate. The way the media’s evolved, if we were doing some of the stunts we did then, now, they would erupt in a whole new scale with social media,” thinks Andrew. “With social media, the difference now, is that a story would spread much faster but it would also take on a life of its own a lot faster as people commented on it. It doesn’t take a lot to outrage someone on Twitter. You would have to think through the various routes a story could go even harder than you did then”.
Perhaps one of the most amazing parts of the story is the window within which it all happened. Most of Acclaim’s most memorable campaigns happened in a single year: 2002. “From my memory of it, in those days, publishers were releasing a lot more titles. It was like DVD launches: we were doing a game launch every month,” explains Andrew, partly explaining the need to create stunts that stood out.
“The thing I always remembered about all of them is the usual gaming forums absolutely hated what we did, and we’d have hundreds of comments about it — until the penny dropped and people realised that they were giving us the attention we wanted by discussing it,” says Turok.
“However, the mainstream loved them. The ideas were different from the norm and people looked at them as creative and just thought they were clever and funny — and definitely not the sort of thing you saw every day. Whether people liked them or not, we did try to take PR to a different level and the gaming industry, whether positive or negative, has never forgotten them. These days it’s rare you see something amazing where you can really appreciate it — the four Sony symbols on the Oxo Tower was the last stunt that really impressed me.”