In my previous posts (here and here), I discussed – belatedly, I admit – the “bikini babes” banner ad that was used by Linden Lab to promote Second Life. There has been much criticism and outcry from all kinds of sides, for all sorts of reasons.
On the academic front, Liz Falconer, professor of Technology Enhanced Learning and Director of the Education Innovation Centre at the University of the West of England (UWE), said that this sort of marketing plays to a stereotype (the young male gamer) that is not attractive to the academic world. For more details, please listen to the 15th installment of The Drax Files Radio Hour podcast, where she was interviewed along with Stylianos Mystakidis, e-learning manager at the Library and Information Centre of the University of Patras, Greece.
Jo Yardley pointed out (rightly) that this ad, by being a campaign on its own rather than part of a more inclusive campaign, gave a skewed and one-sided view of Second Life to the public at large. Others said that such ads present SL as a sex haven, which presents problems for other parts of its user base – for instance, it’s been claimed that, because of such marketing, users with child avatars are more vulnerable to being wrongly accused of being paedophiles. There are aspects of these criticisms that still need to be discussed, and I intend to draw upon a comment posted here by Trinity Yazimoto, and upon discussions I’ve had with various people since I posted my first post on Saturday. So, I’ll dwell on this matter a little bit more.
The young male gamer
I found it rather interesting to hear Professor Falconer inform us that young male gamers are not an attractive audience for the academics who conduct research in virtual worlds and virtual reality. I would have found this criticism more understandable if it had been expressed in the early 1980s, when I was still unborn, when the micro cassette was the most affordable data storage medium, COBOL was reigning supreme, and 128KB of RAM was considered perfectly satisfactory for home computers.
But in our times, with universities offering majors in the design of computer and video games, this criticism is surprising. Young male gamers are a significant part of the intended clientele for the graduates of curriculums dedicated to gaming. As a matter of fact, even a major or a graduate programme that specialises in artificial intelligence is more than likely to produce graduates who will work in the computer games industry – and again, young male gamers are a significant part of these graduates’ intended clientele.
I understand, of course, that Professor Falconer might have felt disappointed by seeing this ad. I can imagine her thinking to herself “come on LL, do you seriously think tween boys looking for some nookie are the only clients worth attracting?”. This thought crossed my mind too. However, given that computer games are currently viewed as a way to push things forward in so many sectors (including education), I think her criticism is counter-intuitive.
Was that ad really a sexual promise?
Please scroll up a bit and take another look at the ad. Yes, it’s trying to be a bit sexy. It tries to appeal to those people whose idea of escapism in a virtual world is Malibu-style beach with sexy representatives of all genders that are willing to engage in what is derogatorily (and with a dose of guilt, I might say) referred to as “pixel sex” – although, to paraphrase Crap Mariner, I’d have to wish them good luck finding this tropical beach paradise in the orientation islands or however else they’re called nowadays, and try my hardest to keep a straight face while doing so.
Trinity points out, and I tend to agree with her, that what the criticism levelled at this ad effectively implies that the wearing of swimwear is a sexual promise and invitation. How many of the people you see each weekend on your average beach in their swimwear are trying to provoke you to have sex with them? Not that many. Also, the text reads “Make new friends around the world! Play now” – it doesn’t contain any wording that implies sex.
Trinity doesn’t see any sexual invitation in this ad, and I think she’s actually right. Two girls in medium-coverage bikinis that would be perfectly acceptable on the beach of a family-oriented, cookie-cutter, all-inclusive resort, and a guy sporting an emo haircut and dork shorts.
Granted, it doesn’t tell you to go visit any of the Linden Endowment for the Arts installations, and it certainly doesn’t tell you to visit an in-world gallery or some impressively-designed region, but you don’t see the girls holding a “GET IT HERE” sign, either (unlike Baldrick). It’s more of a “let’s spend a lazy day on the beach” kind of thing.
Comparison to other ads
On the left, I give you a… “subtle” ad for IMVU. It’s not an isolated ad; it’s not an exception to IMVU’s marketing norm. Feel free to enjoy the numerous other similar ads that IMVU uses to promote itself. As you can see, there’s plenty more where that came from. I’m not going to say that LL’s marketing is the best there is; far from it. I’ve been quite critical of it on various occasions, and I’ll continue being so whenever necessary. But we must be fair and accurate, otherwise what we say loses its validity. At any rate, I’ll play along with the naysayers and will say that the “bikini babes” ad condones and encourages the pursuit of romance and sex within Second Life. Where exactly is the problem with LL addressing (in a particularly subtle manner, compared to what the “competition” gets up to) an audience that generates a significant part of the revenue it gets from SL (remember Pussycat Catnap’s poignant post on the matter)? Furthermore, after seeing IMVU’s ads, who in their right mind could reasonably claim that LL’s advertising is openly sexual?
If you feel you haven’t had enough visual assault, I’ll give it to you. See the image on the right. This is how Kaneva, an also-ran SL wannabe with some of the most atrocious visuals (and you thought SL’s default avatar mesh was bad enough) marketed itself. “It’s Not Cheatin’ If It’s 3D”. Nice slogan. It not only promoted itself as a sex haven in the most forward manner I’ve seen so far, surpassing even IMVU and being in the same league with Utherverse (only fairly recently has it tried to pose as a “creative” platform, but I highly doubt there have been any takers), it also promoted itself as a place where you could cheat on your RL partner and claim it was not cheating, because you were doing it in a virtual world. I think we can smell the bullshit in Kaneva’s marketing from a few light years away.
I know you might say that IMVU doesn’t really qualify to be compared to SL, because it’s a 3D chatroom. Fair enough, I’ll grant you that. But Kaneva is a virtual world platform (with tumbleweed rolling through its deserted worlds and crickets being the only sound heard), and it actively and openly promoted itself with sexual promises and innuendoes that no one in LL’s marketing department would ever think of incorporating in any of their promotional campaigns. That said, maybe LL’s critics were a bit too trigger-happy here?
A content creator’s point of view
As I mentioned in my second post on this topic, I had a discussion with Siddean Munro of Slink Style fame, one of LL’s most successful content creators in recent times. We’ve been friends for quite a while and I highly respect her opinions and business sense. She pointed out three winning points that SL has over any other virtual world platform:
- The freedom for people to explore their sexuality in-world in a safe way that is not always provided in RL;
- A fairly low barrier for entry to the content creation market (I’d say that, if you want, you could say SL is fairly socialist in this respect);
- A stable virtual currency that is traded against major RL currencies and is successfully kept on tax authorities’ good side.
She also pointed out that these are precisely the three things that other pretenders to SL’s crown seek to restrict, and this causes them to fail. LL, despite its numerous failings in other departments, got things exactly right here, and this places it in a far more advantageous position than any other company that might try its hand at developing a new virtual world or entering the existing market using existing (i.e. SL- and OpenSim-grade) technologies. Not to mention that a Facebook-designed virtual world would be downright creepy.
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