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Video Game Advertising Strategy: Ladders, Bridges, And Sniper Rifles

Everyone knows what advertisements are and why they are necessary to drive awareness. But making an effective ad is not as simple as just slapping some captured video into a YouTube upload and calling it a day. Your target audience is bombarded by ads all day, every-day. Your conscious mind spends much of its life practically bathing in them. So crafting a successful ad means assembling something that can cut through all of the noise and provide information that will stick. And the first step is determining a strategy for your ads.

By Reading This Post, You Will Learn:

  • The fundamental goal of advertising, and why it’s about the customer, not the product
  • What “laddering” is
  • How to”ladder-up” and “ladder-down” using Gears of War as an example
  • What “bridging” is
  • Why it’s important to focus on one attribute at a time in advertisements

Video Game Advertising Strategy

If you’ve read the prior posts in the Video Game Marketing series, the notion of yet another strategy might seem absurd. You already have an overall value creation strategy, a positioning strategy, and a communication strategy. And now I’m going to dump another strategy on you? The hell, you say! Well toughen up, buttercup. Your approach to advertising requires just as much focus and intentionality as every other marketing exercise.

Rule #1: Ads Are Not About Your Game

One of the biggest mistakes any business person can make in an awareness campaign is making the campaign about the product. Don’t fall for that trap. When developing an ad, always keep this quote by Harvard Economist Theodore Levitt in mind: “People don’t want a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole.”

The point of an ad is not to tell the audience how great your solution is. It’s to communicate how well you understand the audience’s problem. Or, to take a lesson from Geoffrey Moore, author or Crossing The Chasm, the goal of an ad is not to make your game easy to sell. It’s to make your game easy to buy.

In the case of gamers, you need to understand the form of value they want from your game and why they want it. This is why developing a game marketing strategy and customer interviews are so crucial.

Do they want a compelling story? Or do they want a stiff challenge? Do they want to experience the fear of being helpless or the thrill of being empowered? Is community important, or is it competition they seek? In other words, what emotional need do they want the game to fulfill?

And once you understand their need – the functional benefit they are seeking – you can craft an add (or series of ads) that answers that need.


One of the fundamental concepts of advertising is the “ladder”, the notion of tying the functional benefits of a product to higher order emotional benefits or lower-order reasons to believe.

Any advertisement is trying to communicate some functional benefit of the product to the audience. In terms of games, that functional benefit can be any number of needs (going back to the notion of creating value in the game marketing strategy post). It could be challenge, depth, fantasy, or ultra-violence. Laddering means supporting that functional benefit by offering reasons to believe (“laddering down”) or coffering the emotional benefit the customer hopes to get out of the product (“laddering up”).

A diagram of the video game advertising laddering concept Trailers that show actual gameplay and developer walkthroughs are generally laddering down, while pre-rendered trailers and heavily edited sizzle reels typically are laddering up.

Ladders of War

The trailer series for the original Gears of War was an exceptional execution of laddering.

The E3 2005 Reveal Trailer Laddered Down

First the reveal trailer for Gears laddered-down. It supported the functional benefit of the game with lots of reasons to believe:

Let’s examine what the trailer establishes:

  • High quality graphics (for the time certainly, but even now)
  • Strong art design
  • A dystopian setting (what Epic would later coin “destroyed beauty”)
  • Explosions
  • Monsters
  • Creepy music
  • Armored soldiers
  • Shooting
  • Action sequence

The trailer communicates, in no uncertain terms, that Gears contains all of the pre-requisites of a sci-fi/horror shooter. It also drilled the cog skull iconography into our heads.

The E3 2006 Trailer Laddered Up

The second trailer, on the other hand, laddered-up:

The trailer communicates the desperation, horror, and violence players can expect to experience in Sera. It shows no gameplay, but it eludes to the emotions it hopes you experience when you play.

The “Mad World” Trailer Laddered Up In A Major Way

Then there’s the famous “Mad World” trailer:

This trailer ladders-up even further. Having supported the functional benefits with the prior two trailers, Epic was able to get really esoteric. The ad still speaks to the emotional desolation of Gears, but that message is almost entirely divorced from functional benefit. That isn’t a knock on the ad. The ad simply made the reasonable assumption that viewers either a) had seen the prior two adds and already possessed the necessary context or b) would be willing to look up those ads to acquire that context. It did that in order to skip over the functional benefit and speak directly to gamers’ aspirations to play an intense, next-generation shooter. And that ability to focus purely on the emotional message allowed Epic and Microsoft to create a truly unique piece of advertising.

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An alternative way to view this connection between reasons to believe and goals is the “bridging” frame work, created by Doug Milliken of the Clorox Company:

A diagram of the video game advertising concept of bridging

The concept is simple. Your audience has a goal in mind (again, think back to the source of value you think your target wants). The idea of accomplishing that goal carries with it a certain emotional experience. You want your game to deliver on that emotional need through a particular functional benefit. And you support that functional benefit with your reasons to believe.

The Sniper Rifle, Not The Shotgun

As tempting as it can be to shotgun reasons to believe at gamers, don’t. Humans can only observe, process, and store so much information in a short window of time. You are best off conveying one functional benefit in an add, and then using subsequent ads to establish further benefits. Indeed, it’s best to use as few reasons to believe per ad as possible.

An extreme example is the multiple gameplay ads Sega released for Alien Isolation (“No Escape“, “Don’t Shoot“, “Nowhere Is Safe“, etc). Each was a minute or less and communicated a distinct reason to believe (running is futile, gunshots attract the alien, and if it know where you are it will find a way to get to you, respectively).

Even the E3 trailer for Gears was focused. Granted, there multiple reasons so believe I pulled from the trailer, but they all combine to make a large macro-reason: this is a sci-fi shooter. But it ignores other reasons to believe that are at the core of Gear‘s design. It doesn’t show the roadie-run or the cover-based maneuvering. It doesn’t even make it clear that the game has a 3rd-person camera. Again, that’s not a knock. It was effective use of an advertising strategy.

Further Reading If You Enjoyed This Post

What’s Next?

Now that you have a strategy, you can start thinking about the specific content of the ad. But, how do you know if the ad will actually be effective? In my next post, I’ll be discussing how to effectively review a video game advertisement. Click to read on!

Key Takeaways

  • The goal of advertising isn’t to make your game easy to sell. It’s to make it easy to buy.
  • Advertising is about your customers’ needs, not your game.
  • Ads need to connect the functional benefit of the game either to gamers’ emotional needs (“laddering-up”) or concrete reasons to believe (“laddering-down”)
  • An alternative framework is “bridging”: using adds to make a connection from your game’s most basic attributes (the reasons to believe) to gamers’ basic goals.
  • Adds need to focus on one primary reason to believe at a time to avoid overwhelming viewers. Mutliple reasons to believe can be established over a series of ads.

Return to Video Game Marketing table of contents

Creative Commons License
“Video Game Advertising Strategy: Ladders, Bridges, And Sniper Rifles” by Justin Fischer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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