GDC: What Floats Up Must Rain Down in Homefront Balloon Debacle
By Matt Peckham
I noticed publisher THQ’s Game Developers Conference balloon stunt gone wrong in the San Francisco Chronicle last night, perusing the story’s rain-smeared pictures filled with hundreds of bright red dots drifting and slipping and clustering like specks on a scatter chart.
THQ was promoting its first-person shooter Homefront, a kind of paean to 1984 U.S. invasion film Red Dawn, only propelling things forward to 2027 and substituting North Koreans for Russians. Never mind how silly that sounds, the balloons were intended to symbolize (and simulate) “a method used by South Korea to send messages of hope to the North.” The stunt was part of a staged rally purporting to criticize “North Korea’s human rights violations,” but in reality just a media-fishing stunt to pimp Homefront’s March 15 release on PC, PS3, and Xbox 360.
South Korea recently released propaganda balloons into North Korea with leaflets about the uprising in Egypt (North Korea banned such news), prompting Pyonyang to threaten an attack across the border if the launches continue.
In San Francisco, the 10,000 helium-filled balloons, which would normally float up, up, and away, instead went slightly up, then over, then back down and into the drink (the San Francisco Bay, that is). In part, because it was raining, in part because it was windy, but perhaps most of all because the balloons were laden with little vouchers pitching an exclusive GameStop additive: A coupon for a Homefront multiplayer pack with a bonus in-game weapon.
Bay Area environmentalists were not amused, branding the stunt “polluting and littering.” THQ countered by claiming the balloons “were made from a 100% organic product and are 100% biodegradable.”
I wasn’t there, and I’m not familiar enough with the politics of Bay Area cleanup issues to comment on “inflatable latex restraint” (if you’re interested, this article in The Post and Courier suggests it may be a problem for marine sea life, biodegradable or no). But I’ve been writing about games for over a decade, and like you, I’ve been privy to some pretty ridiculous attention-grabbers.
Remember Sony’s 2007 God of War 2 launch party, where they trucked in a decapitated goat (complete with edible “offal”) and trotted out topless women to drop grapes into guests’ mouths?
How about the time (former) publisher Acclaim ran its “Turok: Evolution Labor Day” contest, promising to award $10,000 to the first baby born on September 1, 2002 and named Turok for at least one year by its parents?
And who could forget Sony’s 2005 PSP graffiti campaign, where the publisher quietly paid artists to spray-paint stylized images of punky kids toting their new games handheld on buildings around Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, Philadelphia, and San Francisco?
It’s a loud culture, so I guess trying to be louder impels marketing “geniuses” to green-light this stuff, guided by the hand-over-hand baseball-bat dictum “if we don’t do it, someone else will.”