The first time I saw the TV ad above, which features Aubrey Plaza (best known for playing April Ludgate on “Parks and Recreation”) explaining in her trademark deadpan how she became a World of Warcraft player, I was rather charmed. Frequently when games are pitched directly to women, they are pitched using cheap tropes of gender. For example, the “I Play For Me” ads used to market the Nintendo DS to women a few years ago used women celebrities like Carrie Underwood to pitch the portable game system as a kind of feminine accessory. (I wrote about the gendering of the DS ads previously for Flow [link].)
The WoW ad featuring Plaza could fall into the same category, but her icy delivery is a sharp contrast to Carrie Underwood’s easy warmth. Further, while the ad is doubtless intended to market WoW to women and girls, it refrains from suggesting that the game is easy or accessible; instead, the game is presented as highly engaging and possibly even addictive. In the ad, Plaza likes the game so much that she ultimately dumps the boyfriend who introduced her to the game after realizing she likes the game more than him.
Over at Ad Week, David Kiefaber feels the ad is divisive and may alienate the game’s existing fanbase [link]:
… this is a classic case of an ad laughing at its demographic rather than with it. After the last batch of fun and inclusive celebrity ads for WoW (yes, even the Chuck Norris one), a lazy, alienating one starring a bitchy ice queen was bound to ruffle some nerd feathers.
However, I wonder if the ad actually alienates WoW players generally, or if it may reflect efforts to appeal to women. That is to say, Plaza’s postfeminist sneer may have a broader appeal among WoW players than Chuck Norris’s macho posturing. I don’t want to hate on Chuck Norris so much as I want to note that the fanbase for WoW includes a lot of women. As of 2009, Nielsen numbers showed that over 400,000 U.S. women playing WoW [source]. According to the same data, WoW was also the most played “core” game among women ages 25-54. [source] Given this, the ad may make more sense read as a direct appeal to an existing fanbase of adult women than as a putdown directed at the socially awkward young men assumed to be the game’s largest audience. At the very least, there is evidence that many women enjoy WoW, and sharp advertising intended to appeal to women who already play WoW or who may consider playing seems perfectly sensible.
Further, I find it difficult to separate this ad from the veritable deluge of diamond advertisements that begin in November and run through the holiday season. Jewelers pull out all the stops selling diamonds and fine jewelry, ostensibly to women, but, often they seem to be instead selling diamonds to men as things women want. The message certainly is rarely “buy yourself a diamond,” but is frequently “diamonds are the only acceptable symbol of romantic love.” I’m sure that advertising message hits most viewers, raising expectations among women and creating perceived obligations for men. Regardless, the WoW ad I’m discussing here, in which Plaza says flatly, “I said diamonds, ****,” only to be told she can “mine diamonds in the game” directly plays with the consumer practices so embraced by jewelers like “Every Kiss Begins with” Kay or “I am Loved” Helzberg.
At its center, the ad is a joke about gender assumptions — that Plaza wouldn’t want to play a video game, that her boyfriend is so inept at gift giving that he would give her a game she had no interest in, that, as a woman, Plaza would be obsessed with diamonds. But, these assumptions are overstated and revealed as the flimsy gossamer they are, ultimately collapsing under their own weight.