Ever since the Grand Theft Auto series came into existence in 1997, it has quickly become one of the most successful video game franchises of all-time thanks to its pioneering approach to open-world gaming, freedom to kill nearly anyone you want, and the whole novelty of stealing cars and running over prostitutes with them.
Now this sort of thing would barely make a ripple in the video game world these days, but it was a huge deal back in 1997 and controversial gameplay elements like those could potentially sink a game before it had even come out.
After finishing work on the very first Grand Theft Auto back in 1997, Rockstar Games – which was known back then as BMG Interactive – were left with the dilemma of trying to market it. How on earth were they going to sell a game that was guaranteed to stir outrage due to all the violence and crime that’s in it?
BMG decided to hire notorious publicist, Max Clifford, to market GTA and it was an unheard of move at the time as he was known a s**t-stirrer in the music business. Now the dude is an awful, awful human being on so many levels (which is a story for another time) but his idea to sell GTA was genius.
His plan was simple: embrace the game’s criminality in all its filthy glory,lean right into the outrage and get the right people talking about it. Literally.
Clifford fed stories about an “utterly despicable” game that was developed in Scotland into the ear of some right-wing lord and encouraged them to speak out about it. And lo and behold, his plan worked despite some understandable skepticism from BMG.
The conservative-leaning Lord Campbell of Croy ended up speaking publicly about Grand Theft Auto on May 20, 1997, in the House of Lords in the UK. He tried to warn everyone that the game was filled with awful things like hit and runs, carjacking and police chases, saying that “there would be nothing to stop children from buying it.”
Next thing you know, headlines about this “deplorable” game started coming up everywhere, particularly in right-wing media. Soon every morally outraged parent and activist were clutching at their pearl necklaces over Grand Theft Auto, which at this point in the timeline hadn’t even come out yet.
To keep the controversy fire blazing, Clifford and BMG launched a then-unusual campaign that included radio ads that included excerpts of Lord Campbell denouncing the game, leaving fake parking tickets on cars during video game conventions and promotional posters promising, ahem: “Murder, drug busts, hijacking, smuggling, bank raids, police bribes, road rage, bribery, extortion, armed robbery, unlawful carnal knowledge, adultery, pimping, petty thievery, and double parking!”
According to WIRED, the campaign got to the point where a writer for Grand Theft Auto, Brian Baglow, got into a minor car accident and Clifford had bright idea of milking the ever living hell out of it for the game by planting sensational headlines like “Sick car game boss was banned from driving!” in the news.
All this manufactured right-wing outrage was ridiculous to say the least but Clifford’s campaign was deceptively brilliant as it reached “12 to 13 million people” and Grand Theft Auto ended up welling ridiculously well (for 1997). The series took off like a freight train since that 1997 campaign and hasn’t looked back since. The latest title in the franchise, Grand Theft Auto V, has sold over 100 million copies and is the third best-selling game of all time.
So the moral of this story is, uh, if you want to sell an excessively violent game like Grand Theft Auto, get right-wingers to do it for you by making them super mad. But hey, whatever works.