Game Over: Brands Have Found 'Pokemon Go'

The definition of capitalism: Gotta Catch 'Em All

Yesterday, I received promotional emails from two of the shamefully many restaurant and food delivery services that I patronize. The bougie salad chain sweet green urged that I “gotta taste ‘em all,” while Seamless went heavy on the wordplay, suggesting that I “pickup a rare catch” in its subject line, and then making use of a familiar font to “Get Poke to Go,” highlighting the sudden availability of a fish I’d never before seen on a takeout menu.

And as it turns out, their respective email teams were actually late to the internet consumer engagement leveraging party, which has for the last week seen savvy corporations co-opt the social phenomena that is Pokémon Go for their own vague marketing purposes.

Today, Hyp3r, which is a “Engagement Platform for Venues,” not the name of a teenaged molly-dealing DJ, hyped up how effectively the Marriott hotel chain glommed on to the Poke-sensation.

While other hotel chains and companies were struggling with how to best take advantage of the full-blown phenomena, Marriott jumped in feet-first, using its gigantic, guest-monitoring control room to engage in real-time within its walls. Marriott, Hyp3r gushed, didn’t just send out some clever tweets featuring a Pikachu in its lobby; instead, its social media managers interacted 1:1 with the people staying on its grounds, swooping in to give them “warm-and-fuzzy feelings” that are the digital equivalent on chocolate on the pillow.

And by golly, it’s working quite well, the agency/platform/blog reports.

“Sometimes all you have to do is sit back, relax, and let your guests become your photographers/marketers/evangelists, creating authentic content you can feature in your official social channels,” it suggests, giving away the ultimate endgame for these sorts of promotions (and illustrating it with this user-generated Instagram shot of a Psyduck by the pool).

There has been no shortage of other brands who have jumped to make whatever theoretical hay comes from including their manufactured corporate voices in a bubbling online conversation. Digiday added another layer of noise to the echo chamber by ranking some of the best and worst of them, too; the site snarked about Jolly Rancher’s total Twitter fail and Pop Chips’ inability to make a solid enough connection between snacks and Pokémon, but praised Chipotle’s ability to use the game to change the conversation from the usual focus on its poisonous burritos.

This onslaught of attempts to co-opt a legitimate cultural sensation is nothing new, of course; it is the purest expression of the Citizens United edict that corporations are people, funneled through the internet and the belief that keywords and safe jokes can create facsimiles of the “authenticity” that millennials crave. Of course, there are plenty of how-to’s on cashing in on poor Pokémon fans for less intuitive brands, but it’s the outward impression that counts.

There is no pop culture phenomenon or mildly recognizable meme that goes unexploited now that publishing is so instantaneous and wins are so easy to fake; it simply requires empowering young people who are better-paid and less creatively frustrated than the people writing somewhat less cynically about the craze in question.

I’m not entirely sure when advertisers and brands began to believe that this sort of quasi-relevant, eyebrow-arched marketing is what connected with people, or more importantly made them more likely to stay at a Marriott or eat at Papa John’s. It’s undoubtedly overly nostalgic to pine for the days of disconnected jingles (though I have), but at least they didn’t seem so intrusive or conniving; before, there was a tacit understanding that advertising would clearly label itself as such, and try to win your dollars on the merit of its product, or at least the sharp production values of its ad campaign.

As the co-option of Pokémon Go suggests, that is no longer the case, and the corporate ideal would be for us to simply accept their intrusive injection into conversations both public and private; Marriott spent much of its time commenting on individuals’ Instagram accounts, which are ostensibly private spaces, even if that’s not actually the case.

It would be naive to complain all that much about a corporate product — importantly, Pokémon Go sent Nintendo’s stock through the roof — being ruined by other corporations’ ambitions. But the encroachment of fully cynical branding efforts crowds the conversation and tamps down any capacity to be enthusiastic about what has been a godsend game for many; when it becomes a platform to sell Lyft rides and car-tuneups, the whole thing quickly loses its magic.

What’s perhaps most frustrating is the speed with which things we publicly enjoy are co-opted for unrelated business purposes. I’ve been to the Pokémon store in Japan and was happy to drop some coin there, but that was unsolicited, and voluntary. At least let me run around like a joyous, dopey child for a few weeks before using it to subtly influence which kind of pizza I eat.

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