Most people experienced yesterday's dramatic events, as hundreds of Trump supporters successfully breached the U.S. Capitol, through social media. Places like Facebook and Twitter cost nothing to use, but still manage to make money by feeding advertisements as people doomscroll and wonder if the country is falling apart. Ad placements are scheduled days, months, or weeks in advance, which is why companies are often scrambling to take down tweets, posts, and ads that suddenly feel careless, contrasted to the day's events.
It wasn't shocking, then, when people were uncomfortable to find this ad in their feeds, promoting a game called Rogue State Revolution with the tagline "survive the coup":
Rogue State Revolution, a strategy game about building a nation transitioning from a monarchy into a democracy and trying to survive the threat of an eventual coup, isn't even out yet. The game is scheduled to be released on PCs sometime in the next few months.
This ad came as members of the House were being told to hide under chairs and equip gas masks, as police barricaded doors and aimed guns at insurrectionists. It felt a lot like an attempted coup, and suddenly, here's an ad hyping up how that might be a cool video game.
Pretty quickly, people were tagging the game publisher, Modern Wolf, on social media, wondering why it was running ads about a coup.
"That is..untimely," said one of many Twitter users who pointed out what was going on.
This cycle is familiar on places like Twitter, where the ability to tag and dog pile isn't a bug in the system, it's a feature. It's frequently used to digitally shame brands being thoughtless in moments like this, and in this case, Modern Wolf was quick to point out this was an accident and once it was made aware of what was happening, the ads were removed from circulation.
"My heart's been in my throat all day," said Modern Wolf CEO Fernando Rizo in an email with VICE Games yesterday.
Rizo is a former U.S. Marine, self described as a "deeply patriotic guy, though I'm also pretty undeniably liberal." Though Modern Wolf is based in the UK, Rizo is from the United States, and like everyone else, was spending their time glued to the unfolding events at the Capitol.
"The notion that Modern Wolf was trying to ride the coattails of [recent] events for marketing value makes me sick to my stomach," Rizo said, "and I mean that quite literally."
The game's ads started last fall, and was originally much longer than "survive the coup."
"After a few weeks of tests, we noticed that shorter copy was more effective," Rizo said, "so we started trialing some really pithy little ads with stuff like 'optimize your nation' and a screenshot of some in-game graphs. Counter-intuitive maybe, but that stuff was delivering a lot better than the longer copy. Our absolute best performing ad ever, was the one you're writing to me about: survive the coup."
The first "survive the coup" ad went live on December 14, and kept generating enough interest that Rizo left it running. He never forgot about it, but it wasn't front of mind, one of many things Modern Wolf was doing to drum up interest in a publisher only started last year.
"I was making dinner [yesterday] and watching the news with my wife, just absolutely floored by what was going on and texting with friends back in New York," said Rizo, "when my phone started buzzing notifications from the Modern Wolf Twitter account. The last thing on my mind while I was watching my country tear itself apart had been a tweet we promoted almost a month ago, about a game that has nothing to do with US domestic politics."
Soon enough, the ads were pulled and Modern Wolf was responding on its Twitter account.
"People are mad and scared and they don't trust brands and resent marketing," said Rizo. "I get all of that. Us making a bad impression on a few hundred people isn't even in the top million biggest problems in the world today, so we'll deal."