Gamification: The powerful PR tool that attracts attention

If you think gamification is a relatively new trend, consider that one of the fathers of public relations, Edward Bernays, was using it almost a century ago.


Have you ever noticed that computer games are addictive? I didn’t play for about 15 years, and then got an Xbox. In the intervening years, the games have become like movies, with scripts as complex and picture quality that’s almost as good. I find myself playing for what seems like 20 minutes—but is, in fact, two hours. The same thing happens in sports: People happily spend 90 minutes glued to a televised soccer match. This is, let’s face it, just 22 people kicking a ball about—but turned into a game, it entertains millions. So, is there anything we can learn from the compelling nature of sports and computer games? Such games contain problem-solving, escapism, competition, a sense of achievement and visible rewards, whether in goals, points, a virtual currency or achievement levels. The science of gamification tries to apply these to other fields—in our case, public relations. Jesse Schell, a professor of entertainment technology at Carnegie Mellon University, defines gamification as “a problem-solving situation which you enter into willingly… a symptom of something that is happening in the nature of design, which is that we’re moving from a model where we design things to be efficient and effective, to where we design things so that we like them.” In 1966, Scientific American wanted to sell more advertising to airlines. Its readers flew a lot, but it had failed to convey this to their airlines. The “efficient” technique, to use Schell’s terminology, would have been to issue a press release saying that advertisers should spend their money with the magazine. No one would have covered it. Or they could have placed some advertisements saying that their readers fly a lot. That might have been somewhat effective. Instead, the company turned to Howard Gossage, a master of advertising and public relations, who created a campaign based on gamification. The magazine announced the first International Paper Airplane Competition, promoted with a single advertisement, a press conference, and huge newspaper coverage. It generated nearly 12,000 entries, including 5,000 from children. A book of the best entries, the “The Great International Paper Airplane Book,” was a best-seller. The airlines fell in love with the magazine. The Royal Society of Chemistry in London did something similar in 2008, when it challenged the public to come up with a solution to the cliffhanger in the movie “The Italian Job.” How, they asked, could Charlie Croker, the film’s protagonist, and his team extract the gold within 30 minutes without using a helicopter—and how could it be proven mathematically? This engaged the readers of The Telegraph‘s letters page over many days, while increasing awareness of the practical uses of science. The paper ran a substantial story under the headline: “Cliffhanger climax to The Italian Job solved after 40-year wait.”

Although gamification is too rarely used today, Edward Bernays—a founding father of public relations—was using the technique in the first half of the 20th century. For Procter & Gamble, he ran the National Soap Sculpture Competition in White Soap, which persuaded children to drop their hostility to soap and start using P&G’s Ivory brand. By the fourth time the contest was run, 4,000 entries were submitted, and schools around the United States were involved. Alex Singleton is a PR consultant. This article is based on an extract from his new book, The PR Masterclass, out now from Wiley. (Image via)

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