“It’s a news report…except it’s also an ad!”
That’s how Ad Week described on Friday a recent trailer produced by Vice Media. The trailer promotes both Vice’s forthcoming investigation into private military contractors and the next installment in a popular video game series. To gamers, the video was just the latest installment in a fast-paced marketing campaign for “Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare,” a game set in a dystopian future in which private military companies, or PMCs, are the most powerful forces on the planet.
But to journalists, the video might seem like another line crossed between advertising and the news. The trailer (which was released on “Call of Duty’s” YouTube channel) promotes the video game prominently at the beginning and end. The game’s logo is displayed in small letters throughout the footage, so clearly it’s labeled as advertising.
It might come as a surprise, then, that the video features interviews with some pretty heavy hitters. Erik Prince, the founder of the notorious contractor Blackwater, makes an appearance in which he praises his company’s work for the U.S. government. P.W. Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, also appears, arguing for more regulation of PMCs. The trailer further features brief snippets of an interview with David Sanger, the chief Washington correspondent of The New York Times.
But in an email, Sanger said he doesn’t remember agreeing to be part of an advertisement.
“I was contacted by Vice Media some weeks ago and taped a few short items for what they described as a documentary on private military contractors,” he wrote. “To my memory, there was no mention of Activision or video games.”
Singer, of Brookings, said in an email that he knew that the project was a collaboration with “Call of Duty,” but declined to comment further. Neither Singer nor Sanger nor a Vice spokesperson would state whether money was given for the interviews, but a blank copy of an interview release — which Vice spokesman Alex Detrick claims all interview subjects signed — says that no payment would be given for the interview, and that Vice and Activision “may use the resulting tapes, photographs and recordings” for “various advertising and marketing materials.”
The trailer announces on its title card and in its final message that its angle was inspired by the hellish vision of “Call of Duty,” in which mercenaries in robotic exoskeletons and futuristic aircraft duke it out on the Golden Gate Bridge in the year 2054.
“With advanced weaponry, highly trained soldiers, billions of dollars at their disposal, and few regulations,” intones the video’s presenter, “what happens if [PMCs] stop taking orders…and start taking over?”
The ad agency 72andSunny is also mentioned in the blank interview release provided by Vice. Contacted by email on Saturday, spokespeople for 72andSunny, The New York Times, and the Brookings Institution, did not reply to requests for comment.
This isn’t the first time Vice has been at the center of controversy regarding branded content. The media company is frequently accused of selling out to advertisers in posts on Gawker, a snarky news site whose writers have been slammed by Vice co-founder Shane Smith.
Smith denies that Vice produces branded content. Rather, he told The Guardian in March, it publishes “content sponsored by brands.”
Jedd Thomas, the Vice producer who presented this video, has hosted at least two other video game-branded specials for Vice Media, but neither of them (one about a Canadian inventor and conservationist, and another about a group of anti-violence community activists in south Chicago that was also the subject of criticism) was as heavily branded or tied into its product as the “Call of Duty” trailer.
In the trailer, which Vice says is only a taste of a longer investigation into private military contractors, Thomas reads a series of alarming statements about the rise of military contractors as grainy shots of gun-toting men scroll in the background. Snippets of interviews with private contractors are played, and for one sequence, Thomas is strapped up with a bulletproof vest and rushed through an apparent simulation of an evacuation mission before the video comes to an end.
“The next generation of Call of Duty is coming,” reads the final frame.
And apparently, the next generation of branded content isn’t far behind.
Correction: A previous version of this story had a different name for 72andSunny. The references have been corrected.