Critical Intel

Activision, Documentaries Are Not Ads: An Open Letter


Dear Activision,

We need to talk about your Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare advertising.

No, not the one featuring Kevin Spacey and hover bikes. I have no problem with that one. I’m referring to the documentary short “Superpower for Hire” that you produced in association with Vice and the advertising agency 72andSunny.

“Superpower for Hire” is now the second documentary trailer you’ve made – the first being “The Future is Black” for Call of Duty: Black Ops II – and while I let that one go, I feel compelled to comment now that it’s a trend. I had my issues with “The Future is Black” as well – mostly the unsourced scare quotes and use of Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North without explaining his history with the Iran-Contra scandal – but compared to “Superpower for Hire,” it looks positively responsible.

You see, while “The Future Is Black” is advertising masquerading as a documentary, “Superpower for Hire” is advertising masquerading as journalism. This is a dangerous line to cross – particularly because whoever created this product filled it with distortions, misrepresentation by omission and embarrassing factual errors.

First let’s discuss why advertising via journalism crosses a line.

I could be facetious here, and suggest that journalism and advertising are opposing forces. Journalism’s goal, theoretically, is to tell truths and inform the public – while advertising does exactly the opposite. But let’s face it; journalism and ads have coexisted in the same space for quite awhile. It’s been several centuries since you could open a newspaper without seeing an ad for men’s shoes. It doesn’t escape my sense of irony that I myself am writing this for an ad-supported website. However, as a journalist you must be very, very clear as to what role advertising and sponsorship plays in your writing, and work to avoid influence in order to uphold ethical standards. And when you directly partner with a journalistic entity to produce advertising, it’s very important that all parties involved – from the ad agency, to the journalist, to the interviewees and the audience – are aware that this is not straight journalism.

For example, David Sanger, the chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times appears in your documentary. According to statements he made to the Poynter Institute, Vice never informed him that they intended to use the footage in a video game ad – he was under the impression it was a documentary about private military corporations. (And indeed, “Superpower for Hire” – though currently not on the Vice website – is apparently a cross-promotion for a larger Vice investigation concerning PMCs.)

This isn’t the first time Vice has pulled this trick with branded game content either. In 2012 they produced a documentary about Chicago violence prevention group Cure Violence, who try to stop violent reprisals with conflict mediation. Vice published the documentary on a website called Eye for an Eye, which collected stories on revenge to promote Dishonored.

No one at Cure Violence knew that the piece was intended as branded content. Vice ultimately removed the video.

Vice‘s breach of trust with David Sanger is especially damaging since high-level interviewees are “Superpower for Hire’s” only claim at legitimacy. And I must commend you and your partners there – you’ve got a good crop. Blackwater founder Erik Prince is there to drum up controversy much like Ollie North was for “The Future is Black.” Former Sandline International and Executive Outcomes employee Simon Mann – who served five years in prison after attempting a coup in Equatorial Guinea – can talk about the legal vagaries surrounding contractors. P.W. Singer is the moderate voice and go-to-guy for emerging trends in warfare, and David Sanger for Washington insider political talk. That’s a pretty wide spectrum, with a good mix of current and former PMCs plus some outside analysts to keep them honest and problematize their often too-rosy outlook on the industry. If you play them off against each other and aren’t afraid to question Prince and Mann hard, it’ll be good material – just don’t lob softballs and avoid controversy like you did with Ollie North.

But what worries me about the whole production is its emphasis on style over substance. The piece lacks both background information and context, assuming that the audience knows the people talking and the organizations they represent. Not everyone, for example, is politically astute enough to remember the various controversies surrounding Blackwater or how Executive Outcomes was Africa’s go-to private army. And that’s assuming they’ve even lived long enough to hear about it – many of the teens and pre-teens that play Call of Duty are too young to remember 9/11 or even the Invasion of Iraq. Someone who’s 16 now would’ve been around 9 years old when Blackwater guards opened fire on civilians in Baghdad’s Nisour Square.

The lack of context is a killer in editing too. The quotes that Vice and 72andSunny feature in the trailer have all the hallmarks of a bad documentary meant to drive ratings rather than actually educate – the kind of stuff you see in those awful Discovery Channel docufiction productions about mermaids and Megalodon. Sizzle quotes with no backup. Few concrete examples. All the caveats, background information and qualifying statements removed.

All bacon bits, no salad.

This issue extends to the rather scant data your documentary cites – though cites isn’t really the right term, because nowhere in this video did anyone think to include sources for their data. It’s not in the narration. It’s not printed in the charts and graphics. There aren’t even links in the video’s description on YouTube. And that’s frustrating, since “Superpower for Hire” contains a stunning number of factual errors or misrepresentations for a video that’s less than four minutes long.

Many of the errors can be chalked up to flawed presentation rather than flawed research. For example, after talking about the headway PMCs have made on the modern battlefield, the narrator states that: “In the 10 years after 9/11, the U.S. Government has spent more than $3.3 trillion dollars in private defense contracts.”

And while yes, that is technically true, it’s also misleading. Stating it that way – with the imagery you chose – gives viewers the impression that the United States has spent $3.3 trillion dollars on mercenaries. But according to George Washington University’s project Face the Facts USA, that $3.3 trillion covered all private defense contracts, and most of that money went to aerospace and military technology companies. The largest beneficiaries in 2012, for example, were Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, General Dynamics and United Technologies, none of which are PMCs.

There’s a similar problem with the documentary’s claim that “as of March 13th, 2013, private contractors represented 62% of the total forces in Afghanistan.” This is also true, straight from a government report – but again, context matters. The majority of contractors in Afghanistan work in logistics, construction, areal resupply, food service and other support missions. Only about 17% of them, around 19,197 people, are security personnel – i.e., the armed escorts we usually associate with Blackwater. (And a surprising number of security contractors these days are locals.)

But, Activision, where your video really starts to fall down is when it calls security company G4S the “third largest company in the world.”

Let’s unpack that.

First of all: Yes, G4S has 620,000 employees, and yes, that does make them the third-largest private employer in the world. However, there are so many major problems with this claim that I can only assume whoever put together this documentary for you – whether Vice, or as I increasingly suspect, 72andSunny – either didn’t check their facts or decided to intentionally misinform your audience.

First of all, G4S is a British security company that does a lot more than run a private army. They mostly provide security guards for standard commercial and residential properties. They do cash deliveries in armored cars, maintain electronic monitoring devices for prison systems and install security alarms. Their smaller subsidiaries are the ones that guard ships from Somali pirates, handle deportees and send security contractors to Iraq and Afghanistan. There are certainly scary things about G4S -privatization of police services, poorly trained guards and several scandals involving prisoner and deportee abuse – but your video makes them out to be a private army of half a million, and that’s absurd.

G4S wasn’t even able to provide 10,000 security guards for the 2012 Olympic Games. They fell so short the British government had to call up 3,500 troops to fill the gaps. One manager found that, instead of getting a group of trained security guards, his command consisted of untrained teenage girls recruited from a local university.

Yet your documentary plays that 620,000-employee statistic to ominous music and men drilling with assault rifles. “What if they stop taking orders,” it asks, “and start taking over?”

I hate to tell you, but if it’s the teenage girls you’re talking about, I think it’s too late.

“Superpower for Hire” also does a poor job explaining the methodology they use to determine G4S’s global ranking. While the narrator calls them the “the third largest company in the world” (which is wrong) the onscreen text calls them “the third largest private employer” which is true depending on how you slice the data.

The keyword here is private employer, meaning the owners are individuals and the stock isn’t offered publically. That excludes all public sector employers, state-owned corporations and companies that are publically traded on the stock market, giving G4S a substantial leg up. When you add back in public sector employers, G4S’s scary private army looks pretty badly outnumbered: The U.S. Department of Defense is, counting civilian employees and contractors, the world’s largest employer at 3.2 million employees. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army comes in second at 2.3 million. The UK’s National Health Service has 1.7 million. Indian Railways has 1.4 million. Drop G4S into the Fortune Global 500 list from 2013 and it falls in 7th place, just ahead of the U.S. Postal Service and behind the Chinese mail delivery service China Post Group.

The graph in your video, however, is a far cry from providing this sort of context.

Ugh, that graph.

call of duty superpower for hire graph

Activision, please tell me you didn’t pay someone for this graph. It’s an atrocity. I would call it an infographic, but it actually conveys no information at all. For a start, there are no numbers on it, just colorful columns with company names perched at the top.

And it is wrong. All wrong. It ranks Foxconn (1.2 million employees) as larger than Walmart (2.2 million employees). McDonald’s, which has 1.8 million employees, lingers at the bottom because 80% of its employees work at franchises – add those back and it jumps ahead of G4S and Foxconn. Enterprise (78,000 employees) – which I assume is the car rental company? – is for some reason in 6th place while Dell (108,8000 employees) comes in 8th. If you include Hilton’s franchise employees, it’ll double in size and move up a ranking.

Activision, I’m not going to tell you how to feel about this graph, but if I paid someone to make a documentary and they brought me work product this sloppy I’d be sending meeting invites in all caps.

Look, I realize that ultimately you see this as a trailer, not a documentary. But like it or not, when you use the documentary form – especially under the auspices of journalism – you have an ethical duty to report accurate information. Otherwise you risk doing a disservice to the subject and your audience, not to mention embarrassing yourself.

Though it might not seem so, I actually quite like the idea of funding documentary featurettes as part of game advertising. Provided it’s handled in a respectful and accurate manner, it can educate the public and be an enriching experience. As much as I’ve criticized Vice, I found their documentary series for Assassin’s Creed IV to be pretty good. Creative Assembly commissioned several Roman history videos from the Extra Credits team to promote Rome: Total War 2, and they were excellent.

But here’s the problem: in neither of those videos did the content creators manipulate data or obfuscate facts to serve an advertising message. In contrast, “Superpower for Hire” intentionally misleads the viewer so the data looks more like the fictional world you’re creating in a product.

It’s advertising under the banner of journalism – and that’s both irresponsible and unethical.

And here’s the worst part: I want you to make a good documentary about PMCs. You have the resources and connections to do it and it could be a great public education tool. The rise of military contractors is indeed an emerging trend, and brings many questions with it: How does international law deal with them? Who bears responsibility for their crimes? Are they a good investment? Does bringing them in alienate the local population? I’d love you to talk about historical examples like the East India Company, which essentially conquered India with a private army and ruled it so badly the British Empire had to bail them out. You really don’t have sensationalize this topic – it’s attention-grabbing on its own.

Look, Activision, you’re in an enviable position right now. You’ve got a flagship brand solid enough that you can throw your weight around a bit – I mean, good God, you’ve got Kevin Spacey in your next game. Given this, I’m willing to bet that if you geared your documentary trailers toward information rather than exploitation, they’d prove just as popular force others to see you in a new light. You have the potential here to get lots of young people interested in global politics – why not take it?

Sure, the ad gurus will be against it. They’ll swear you need to scandalize to advertise, but you don’t, and they’ve been driving your decision-making for too long.

It’s time to stop taking orders and start taking over.

Best regards,
Robert Rath

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher currently based in Hong Kong. You can follow his exploits at or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.

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