Does "Call Of Duty" Ad Really Demean True Combat?

Note: [All opinions expressed herein are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of GamerXChange]

An American veteran of combat in Afghanistan has taken his sensitivities to The Atlantic regarding how Activision/Square Enix have recently marketed Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 3.

Red Planet Noir Novelist and former Army Special Operations paratrooper D.B. Grady believes that a recent slam-bang ad campaign featuring Jonah Hill and Sam Worthington “trivializes and satirizes war to an extreme, setting a new low.” The ad he’s attacking features Clash Of The Titans and Terminator: Salvation star Worthington as a hardened-the-f!@#-up “vet” soldier and 21 Jump Street and Superbad star Hill as his bumbling, dangerously-enthusiastic “noob” cohort. The two together blast their way from combat scenario to scenario, until Hill finds himself staying frosty himself.



Grady’s take, according to Kotaku and The Atlantic? It doesn’t do justice to what he and his brethren experience on the battlefield – rival-franchise pun absolutely not intended – any justice at all. More to the point, he deems it more a disservice than anything.

“The advertisement trivializes combat and sanitizes war”, he writes. “If this were September 10, 2001, maybe it wouldn’t be quite so bad. Those who are too young to remember Vietnam might indulge in combat fantasies of resting heart rates while rocket-propelled grenades whiz by, and of flinty glares while emptying a magazine into the enemy. But after ten years of constant war, of thousands of amputees and flag-draped coffins, of hundreds of grief-stricken communities, did nobody involved in this commercial raise a hand and say, ‘You know, this is probably a little crass. Maybe we could just show footage from the game’.”

Grady’s essay adds as a concluding salvo “Two smug, A-list clowns strut toward the camera, rifles hanging over their shoulders, explosions consuming the city of New York, and then the words: ‘THERE’S A SOLDIER IN ALL OF US’ . . . No, there’s not.”

Kotaku writer Luke Plunkett, while copping out that his absence of combat experience makes him unqualified to comment, quips “If he really wants to talk about hideous marketing, someone should point out to him that almost nobody in this business shows actual footage from a game in the trailers.”

Kotaku, ladies and gentlemen: missing the point entirely.

The grim specter of death that looms over a battlefield long after the final shot’s echo has dissipated into the suffocating silence of the past is something that should never, ever be minimized with any genuine sentiment that the battlefield is a playground. For every shot whose report has long since fallen silent, there’s a soldier for whom the echo never ends. But it’s entirely possible that Grady lacks a stronger perspective on the history of Call of Duty marketing. The game itself doesn’t treat combat itself as a joke, and the core audience that will gravitate toward the game knows that. There’s not much – if anything – overtly played for yuks. The game may lack the horrors-of-war gravitas of Homefront, but it’s actually been acclaimed for having a gripping, dramatic single-player campaign with a little substance. Remember, combat shooters like this make their respective names with immersion in a battlefield experience.

And yes, it merits conceding that Plunkett, for all his laziness, makes a point: it’s not asking necessarily anything unreasonable that a video game ad make at least a minimal effort toward including even minimal game-play footage.

Remember this?



The game itself isn’t a comedy. It’s action-filled drama. But setting the product apart means trusting that the target consumer knows this, and gets in on the joke.

Fact is, Activision knows its audience. And with every ounce of due respect and then some toward every past, present and future American combat veteran, Grady lacks context. For starters, most people buying MW3 probably have at least a passing familiarity with the Call of Duty franchise and have pretty reasonable expectations for how the game will look. It’s a rare instance when the look and feel are so familiar, that getting away with advertising that completely eschews showing off real game-play is pretty easy.

And in fact, it might even be desirable.

Face it: as military-styled FPS aesthetics go, it’s all been done. MW3 looks similar to Battlefield 3, both look like Call of Duty: Black Ops and groan under my pun’s weight, but the scenery never changes. As shooters go, it is more so the gameplay that sets titles apart, but perceiving the user-friendliness of an interface, the efficiency of an inventory or weapon-swap system, the smoothness of online play or even the simple reactivity of controls can’t really be fully appreciated via game-play snippets but rather only by getting a controller in one’s hands and playing it.

Therefore – among this little sub-genre, anyway – game-play footage really does become somewhat expendable.

Remember, at the end of the day, gaming is still a business. Activision does perfectly the most important of the most basic steps in successfully selling a title when it comes to it’s bread-and-butter franchises like Call of Duty, and even Guitar Hero before that: the target audience probably knows the games well enough to have expectations firmly in place; therefore, they must make the campaign so memorable, that the ad sticks and keeps the title freshly in hearts and on minds.



OK, so it’s worth acknowledging that this maybe approaches comedic extremes, since the vivacious Heidi Klum actively blots out the wall-mounted flat-screen displaying the game footage with her frenetic gyrating. But for many Guitar Hero loyalists, there’s decidedly more more memorable novelty in seeing breasts than in just watching notes race up and down a screen. One thing, the audience sees every day – Hell, at that point, they were probably playing the game in some incarnation or another five minutes ago. Another just makes you go, “Huh . . . half-naked model playing Guitar Hero . . . well . . . that’s different.”

Consider briefly, on the other hand, how hard EA’s Madden franchise must try every single year. That franchise has actually grown so homogenous, that the ads must beat the audience over the head repeatedly with both the yearly graphical tweaks that are inflated to look far, far more significant in advertisements than they ever actually prove to be, and whatever semi-significant game-play tweak EA has decided it will make the singular major selling point and theme for that year’s iteration. Madden absolutely needs the game-play footage for EA’s incessant annual pleas that “We swear, it’ll be different this time!”

This obviously wasn’t some intentional swipe at the gravity of an American soldier’s duty, and it could be reasonably assumed that Grady knows that. As a soldier who risked his life in service to the country he loves, he simply asks that respect be shown for the sacrifices he and other Armed Forces personnel have been willing to make since Sept. 11, and that what he and other soldiers do be respectfully exempted from parody.

That’s a reasonable expectation, too. But Grady should also ask, is this really anything new? In the grand scheme of things, is this really something worth wasting words over?

To both, the answer is “no.” Sorry, Mr. Grady, but it’s absolutely nothing new – not even among video game marketing. He genuinely believes the action is to be taken seriously, just because of how the commercial looks. He may be missing that therein lies something else that makes the ads memorable: taking a serious setting and adding clear absurdity. He goes so far as to jab at Hill and Worthington wearing MultiCam combat gear in the spot. Now, the point obviously is to place an underscored emphasis with a little meta-humor on the game’s immersive combat experience and how any player can lose him or herself and “become” the “soldier within.” But it’s also one more way the ads are memorable: absurdity on “noob” Hill’s part played against Worthington’s deadpan amid an otherwise Serious Business setting. It’s the art of juxtaposition of opposites. Dissonance can be grating and offensive, but here, it’s just colorful.

Maybe even I’ve wasted too many words on this. After all, for all I talk about making a big fuss over old news, since when is an uninformed misunderstanding of the gaming industry and gaming culture anything even remotely “new?”

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2 Responses to “Does "Call Of Duty" Ad Really Demean True Combat?”

  1. well said info. selling games that are based on war to many is selling our kids and alike out but it is what it is.

    • Appreciate the feedback, SteveO! Apparently, if he wants to complain about warfare being demeaned, he should be pointed toward the “Bad Company” games. Though I understand where he’s coming from, I really think he misses the completely.

      Oh, and I must ask: why am I defending the gaming industry like this? Kotaku’s the site with millions of readers, and one of the better known gaming journalism names out there. I think they owed their readers something with a little more effort put into it.

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