Monday, January 16, 2017

The Monopoly is the Message: The Brilliance of Token Madness

I love toys. This is no surprise to anyone who has visited my parents’ furnace-room turned my personal study. It’s my fortress of solitude, a room where I can escape the hubbub of the rest of the home and enjoy some introverted alone time. It consists of about half books and half action figures. Both collections have been accumulating for many years and I am proud of them both. Toys have the ability to transport me back to an earlier, simpler time when I was a child and spent much of my time playing out grand interstellar adventures with my extensive collection of Star Wars action figures.

While I rarely buy new action figures, I keep up with action figure news on the website Action Figure Insider. As I was scrolling through my Facebook feed, a headline on their Facebook page caught my attention, “@Hasbro Launches Historic Worldwide Vote Asking Fans toPick All Eight #MONOPOLY Tokens.” Now, I’m not much of a gamer at all. I’ve played my handful of board games but tend to prefer intellectual conversation, engaging books, or television as forms of entertainment. Monopoly, however, is an extremely nostalgic game for me. I remember playing rounds of the Windows computer game version of the game with my brother. For my birthday one year, my dear Aunt Helen purchased Doctor Who Monopoly for me. One of the key elements to Monopoly is selecting one’s token. Each token almost takes on a personality of its own based on which one various players prefer to use. (I was always the top hat or the cannon, if you’re wondering.)

This is why the headline jumped off the page at me. “What!” I thought, “You can’t change the Monopoly tokens again! They’re iconic.” I then began to think a little deeper. This move was not arbitrary on Hasbro’s part. Clearly, they had a much deeper plan than a simple fan vote. In this article I would like to address why I believe this vote is an ingenious bit of advertising on Hasbro’s part.

1. Nostalgia Sells

If Hollywood has taught other industries anything it is that nostalgia is a currency. Last year alone we got a Star Trek, Star Wars, four Marvel movies, two DC movies, an Independence Day sequel, several movies based on children’s books, and countless other remakes, reboots, and sequels. This is not intended as a criticism of the recent trend of old ideas being reused in films. In fact, I watched and enjoyed several of the films I mentioned! I’m a sucker for nostalgia (see my description of why I collect action figures above).

Hasbro itself is no stranger to the power of nostalgia. Over the past few years they have produced films based on Transformers, G.I. Joe, and Battleship, among other properties. While the quality of these films is debatable, they were, no doubt, very lucrative for Hasbro. Nostalgia rakes in the dough. By renovating their bestselling board game (probably the bestselling board game ever, for that matter), Hasbro is hoping to monetize this sense of nostalgia.

2. Uncertainty Sells

How many of you remember when the news of Captain America’s turn to Hydra hit the news? How about Han Solo’s death? What about the death of Spider Man and the introduction of Doc Ock as the Superior Spider Man? These choices each introduced a sense of uncertainty into their respective franchises. While they could be seen as publicity stunts, they certainly sold comic books and movies. (That being said, the success of Star Wars VII had far more to do with nostalgia than uncertainty.) Even as publicity stunts, these moves certainly awakened interest in their brands.

This same type of uncertainty works for non-narrative brands. In 1985 Coca-Cola famously replaced their classic Coke flavor with The New Coke. After vocal public outcry, they brought back Coca-Cola Classic, resulting in a massive uptick in Coke’s sales. This was either the gutsiest publicity stunt in the history of food brands or a bad move that turned out very well for the brand. Regardless of whether or not it was intentional, the uncertainty in Coke’s brand paired with the nostalgia surrounding Coke resulted in huge dividends for the company.

Hasbro is playing this same kind of game. Quoted in the article, Jonathan Berkowitz, senior vice president of marketing for Hasbro Gaming said, “The MONOPOLY Token Madness Vote lets our passionate fans choose all eight tokens in the MONOPOLY game and no token – not even the Scottie dog — is safe!” This type of uncertainty can only sell more Monopoly games.

3. Personal Agency Sells  

Again, I’m pulling another example from the comic book industry. In 1988, Batman’s sidekick, Jason Todd as Robin, was remarkably unpopular. In order to gain publicity and give the fans a hand in his fate, DC held a telephone campaign and allowed fans to decide whether or not the lad would survive a brutal encounter with the Joker. After a vote 5,343 to 5,271in favor of Robin’s death, DC, true to their word, killed off the Boy Wonder. Though he would later come back to life, this remains one of the most infamous moments of personal agency on the part of the fans in comic book history.

By putting the fans directly in control of the fate of Monopoly’s tokens, Hasbro is cashing in on this came type of personal agency. This isn’t the first time Monopoly has used a fan vote to decide a monopoly piece. In 2013, fans voted on Facebook to replace the boring iron token with a much more exciting token. However, by moving this year’s vote off of Facebook and onto its own website and placing every piece up for grabs, Hasbro is only increasing fans’ control over the future of Monopoly.

4. The Icing on the Cake: The Medium as the Message

Nostalgia, uncertainty, and personal agency can only hemp to publicize Monopoly and only sell more games. However, without an appropriate medium to present this message, it would all be for naught. As communication theorist Marshall McLuhan famously noted, “themedium is the message.” That is, the medium by which you present information, in and of itself, sends a message. The information communicated by that medium is incidental. While McLuhan took a very strong position on this point, I believe that he had a valid point. The medium by which one presents a message is just as important as the message one is trying to present. Hasbro’s medium for this contest is a masterpiece of medium construction.

First of all, rather than creating a page on it’s own website, Hasbro created a spate website for voting, This unique website lends an heir of importance to this vote. Furthermore, it makes the vote far easier to share on social media platforms.

By having a countdown on the welcome page, the vote is given a sense of urgency. This only adds to the viral quality of this vote.

The most beautiful element of this website design of the interface for voting. Rather than use a simple list with bubbles to select (what I had anticipated when I clicked on the website) the interface is a 3D flash environment. As one browses through the more than fifty token options, the user navigates around a home and upbeat music plays. This interface is borrowed, not from other online contests, but from video games. As a medium, video games communicate two ideas, personal agency and uncertainty. After all, in a game, the user is in complete control of an environment where anything (within the bounds of the game) could happen. The medium, quite literally, communicates the message of the contest.

Secondly, Hasbro’s choice of tokens within the interface communicates two ideas, relevance with the Internet generation and nostalgia with the 1930’s world that birthed Monopoly. Consider the four tokens below.  A thumbs-up emoji and a wink face emoji reflect the modern internet generation. A gramophone and a bow-tie speak to a nostalgic 1930’s world. Again, the medium expresses a sense of nostalgia. Moreover, it reaches a new demographic with internet-inspired options.

Clearly, with Monopoly’s presence on the internet with this contest and a plethora of emoji tokens, Hasbro is trying to reach my generation. In my opinion, they are doing an exemplary job. After all, I don’t play Monopoly very much at all anymore but I took the time to vote. Go bow-tie token!


One of Hasbro’s assets has always been their ability to advertise brilliantly. I believe it is one of the reasons they are one of the two biggest toy manufacturers in the world. This latest campaign is brilliant. It appeals to nostalgia, uncertainty, and personal agency and does so through an ingenious interface. I will be watching the results of this contest. Moreover, I will be watching other prominent brands. It will be interesting to see if this sort of contest becomes a new norm in the world of advertising.  

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Feel free to comment! One of the reasons I blog is to interact with my readers. Don't hesitate to leave your thoughts or contact me with any comments, questions, or concerns. - James