On June 6, the sky turned orange. Smoke from Canadian wildfires drifted south and cast a dull orange hue over the United States’ northeastern states. New York City looked otherworldly and post-apocalyptic, its residents sucking in hazardous air. The orange-hued smoke blurred out skyscrapers and towers, leaving only Times Square’s flashing screens eerily lighting up the city streets.
As one billboard put it bluntly, “Welcome to hell, New York.”
It’s an advertisement that is both timely and coincidental. Activision Blizzard’s Diablo 4 was officially released the day prior. Lilith, as tall as a small building, looms over the people of New York, their eyes burning from the smoke. On Twitter, someone jokes: Diablo 4’s marketing team has gone too far.
Of course, Activision Blizzard did not set fire to Canada’s forest to produce massive amounts of smoke sent south by the wind. But the apocalyptic weather seemed to highlight the sheer weirdness and audacity of Activision Blizzard’s major, scattershot marketing campaign, which stands out, even as video game marketing stunts have become more and more audacious.
The only thread that seems to tie this campaign together is virality and shock value — the sort of marketing you see more readily in the mobile game sphere. Of course, that’s not to say this kind of marketing is unheard of in console and PC gaming, but it’s ubiquitous in the mobile space: dramatic storylines that have little bearing on the actual gameplay (sometimes with celebrity endorsements), mass market ads that show off gameplay that’s not actually in the game, and marketing calculated to go viral. Diablo 4’s marketing embodies the ethos of mobile game advertising, whether it intends to or not.
Activision Blizzard basically hit every kind of marketing activity we’ve seen for video games — and then some more — in an effort to become “part of the conversation in places you would not normally see a video game or Diablo,” according to Diablo 4 general manager Rod Fergusson.
Celebrity endorsements? Check, with both Megan Fox and Chloë Grace Moretz featured in ads. Fox appeared in a series of highly calculated tweets and videos making fun of people who are bad at Diablo 4, and calling out a few big name streamers, too. Moretz appeared in a video to make a Diablo 4 character, too. These features aren’t that unusual if you think about Fox’s work and aesthetic — Jennifer’s Body, anyone? (Fox’s ad campaign isn’t beloved by everyone, however, with some suggesting it’s setting game marketing back a few decades. For others, Fox is mommy, and fits the role perfectly.) Meanwhile, Moretz, for her part, has mentioned in interviews that she loves video games.
Celebrity marketing is nothing new, either, but recent mobile game ads seem to have ushered in an era of big-name or unexpected celebrity cameos. Pedro Pascal, right off the success of The Last of Us, appeared in ads for Merge Mansion, an unhinged mobile game. In 2022, mobile game Royal Match ran an ad featuring Rick Hoffman (Suits) that appeared to be sourced from Cameo, an app that allows fans to pay celebrities to say a particular line. But it’s increasingly a trend for big titles too: League of Legends got Lil Nas X to become Riot Games’ “new CEO” in an ad before revealing a new anthem. Diablo 4 got an anthem, too; Halsey sings it.
Activision Blizzard also threw a launch party at a church in Los Angeles; author and gaming expert Danny Peña told Polygon the party ended with Lilith flying out from the ceiling, skin cape and all, before Zedd showed up to DJ. “That’s when you know a company has a big budget,” Peña said. “Hollywood is getting really involved and getting into the game industry.” It’s perhaps about expanding the Diablo franchise to new people, he said. This publicity stunt, again, echoes the kind of campaign Merge Mansion recently pulled. In March, the developers invited influencers to a themed, real-life scavenger hunt hosted at the Paramour Estate in Los Angeles.
But it didn’t stop there. Questionable food product? Got it. Fast food activation? Yup. Activision Blizzard hired marketing company B-Reel to make and distribute vegan smoothies created to look like blended-up meat. It also partnered with KFC to give away Diablo 4 eyes and signed on with Burger King to reward players who can knock back five spicy double cheeseburgers. There’s even a dang hot sauce featured on First We Feast’s Hot Ones. Several of these activations feel more like a dare or a threat, but make sense: Lilith wears a literal skin cape, so the viscera of a meat shake isn’t so surprising. We’ve come to expect food campaigns as a marketing strategy for video games and plenty else, too — McDonald’s is famous for it, with its tie-in toys — but those campaigns are usually a little more appetizing or cute.
Fergusson told Polygon that these kinds of food collaborations are popular on TikTok — though Polygon noticed that the TikToks about the meat shake mostly appeared to be from small accounts, or were paid partnerships that didn’t quite take off. For KFC’s part, it made sense to get involved, as the company has its own gaming arm, Diablo 4’s marketing VP Kaleb Ruel mentioned.
The company behind the gross drink is fully committed to the bit. When asked for the recipe, B-Reel joked that it’s meat of demons blended into a cup. “We landed on a drink with a ghoul brain as the base, covered with some sweet, delicious, red, black and white demon juice, topped off with a layer of smokey see-through skin to keep it all in place,” B-Reel creative team Zack McDonald, Afshin Moeini, and Christian Poppius told Polygon via email. They provided no actual recipe, proving as impenetrable as the gates of hell.
And then there are the seemingly unrelated, and duly unhinged, brand partnerships. Then there’s the satanic chocolate shop. What about a huge mural pinned to the ceiling of a cathedral? A funny choice for a game that plays on Satanic panic, and amusing after Activision Blizzard already went the more traditional route of placing major billboards in New York City. A trailer directed by an award-winning filmmaker? Eternals’ Chloé Zhao is onboard.
The more salient question is: What didn’t Activision Blizzard do? It’s likely the company spent millions of dollars building these campaigns. (Blizzard declined to share the marketing budget for Diablo 4, but said it was “in line with the aspirations for the game.”) It’s hard to imagine how any of this fits together, or who would actually want to drink (or is it eat?) a “meat”-shake. But it seems like that isn’t the most important part of a campaign. Rather, the point of the campaign might simply be its enormous scope, according to marketing professionals Polygon spoke to.
“The launch marketing is definitely a case of ‘more is more’ as, now the game has been proven to be a worthy addition to the 26-year-old franchise, they have the opportunity to really go big and draw in a much wider audience, many of whom may never have played a Diablo game or even this type of RPG dungeon-crawler,” The Game Marketer CEO Phillip Driver told Polygon via email. “Blizzard needed this to be too big to fail, and only by getting huge momentum in the market can that happen.”
Activision Blizzard is competing not only with other video games, but with YouTube, TikTok, movies, and television, Lemonade the Agency marketing CEO Trevor Dudeck told Polygon. “We are living in the attention economy,” Dudeck said. “Every brand is at war for the same 24 hours, and it’s just getting harder to pierce through.”
Going this big is simply an attempt to reach as many people as possible, according to Dudeck. “It takes the willingness to put a lot of hodgepodge things together and be like, ‘OK, we’re going to do 20 things,’” Dudeck said. “10 of them may have no relation to the others. Five of them might fall flat. But the five or six that might catch on are going to do really well. A lot of brands are not willing to take that risk.”
It also makes sense to play on the sense of shock value inherent in the series. Diablo 4 goes to places that are somehow darker than before; there are no good vibes here, just shock and awe. And at least all of the ads are directly related to the video game and its themes, compared to mobile game ads, which often bear minimal resemblance to their source material.
It seems to have worked — if fans joking about the massive Diablo 4 billboard shrouded by the smoky orange sky is any indication. And Activision Blizzard — in another calculated marketing move — published a news release sharing that Diablo 4 sold $666 million globally in the game’s first five days, making it the “best-selling opening in Blizzard’s history.”