For millions of TV viewers, the sight of model Kate Upton and her lush curves remains inescapable.
More than 9,000 times since November, commercials featuring the swimsuit model have aired nationally on male-oriented programs: March Madness, NFL football, "South Park" and the like.
The ads entice boys and men to download the free-to-play smartphone game "Game of War: Fire Age." There are several versions: Upton relaxes in a candlelit bathtub. She rides a horse and leads medieval troops to battle dragons. She approaches the camera and slyly invites the viewer to "come play with me."
The boys and men have done so, beyond the wildest dreams of Machine Zone, the game developer behind "Game of War." Sales of in-app digital goods and paid "boosts" to speed up empire-building have doubled since the ads began, according to data from Think Gaming; the game now takes in about $1 million a day.
The ads worked so well that in February "Game of War" briefly sneaked past the immensely popular "Clash of Clans" as the top mobile game, ranked by revenue.
"That was a huge achievement," said Tero Kuittinen, managing director at media research firm Frank N. Magid Associates. " 'Clash of Clans' had looked invulnerable, but Kate Upton has been able to breach the walls."
The ad spots aren't cheap. Palo Alto-based Machine Zone has dropped about $80 million for airtime in the U.S., according to ad and social media tracking firm ISpot.tv.
Until recently, almost nobody in the industry thought a TV ad campaign for a mobile game would be worth the cost. Only a tiny segment of a broad TV audience would download a mobile game, much less spend their money on in-app purchases. The initial success of "Game of War" and others is changing minds.
That's because of the unusual way mobile apps can be lifted from obscurity to mega-popularity. A big burst of downloads following, say, a TV ad campaign causes the app to rise to the top of the charts in app stores on Android and Apple phones. That makes it highly visible to millions of shoppers who wouldn't have noticed it before. That means even more downloads, pushing it further up the charts.
"It's not a rocket science," said Volker Dressel of Quaid Media, a TV ad consulting firm now targeting gaming companies. "All these people are watching TV and they have a second screen in their hands, so why shouldn't it work?"
Mobile game apps brought in $25 billion in 2014 with an annual growth rate near 25%, research company Newzoo estimates. Developers want to make sure they're getting their share, and then some: TV ads from Machine Zone, King Digital Entertainment and Supercell Oy have helped games once dismissed as short-lived moneymakers remain huge profit engines for years on end. Other game publishers are following their lead, from giants such as Electronic Arts to Beverly Hills start-up SGN.
The idea of advertising mobile apps on television began in Japan, where local companies have been at it for years. King Digital Entertainment, famous for the megahit mobile game "Candy Crush Saga," ran ads on Japanese TV in 2013 despite arguments that Western mobile games couldn't gain mass appeal there. But the ads were designed "with a lot of thought, money and originality," and the Irish company's game became Japan's most-downloaded on iPhones, according to Kuittinen.
Supercell, the Finnish company behind "Clash of Clans," proved King's success was no fluke when it ran its own TV ads in Japan and South Korea last year.
Supercell and King are using revenue from their top-of-the-line franchise to successfully advertise its most popular items on TV and new titles too. On a given day, those apps hold five or six of the first 10 slots on the mobile-game revenue charts.
"They have this crush marketing power with their flagship games to push [competitors] out," Kuittinen said.
Last week, Supercell announced its marketing cost $440 million in 2014 but the company doubled operating profit to $565 million.
That has Kuittinen and some other analysts pointing out that because only a smidgen of games make enough money to justify a TV ad, a handful of gaming giants will further distance themselves from smaller rivals. But smaller companies with popular games aren't shying away. The sustained flow of new users is allowing them to add enough polish to games that they're starting to be seen as more than cheap, time-filling fads. And a combination of revenue and investment cash are providing the resources to advertise on television.
This year, SGN budgeted $10 million for television spots and outdoor ads for its hit matching game "Cookie Jam" and another $10 million for other titles.
Backed by $22 million in venture capital, SGN first tried TV with a $1-million eight-week campaign last fall. It came nearly a year after Chief Executive Chris DeWolfe saw the power of TV ads on a visit to Japan. Seeing bright and cheery TV ads for Japanese games in his Tokyo hotel room sent the former Myspace CEO's mind wandering back to earlier in the day.
DeWolfe said the same games he saw on TV were being played by thousands of people on smartphones across the city. "Clearly there was a correlation," he said.
SGN has taken to channels such as Bravo and Logo TV that best matched the interests of high-spending users. Some of the data about user demographics and preferences are gathered when players connect a Facebook account to "Cookie Jam," which has been downloaded more than 41 million times since launching in March 2014.
Billboards and public transit ads add another layer of messaging, and the company expects to also roll in radio ads, said Josh Brooks, SGN's senior vice president for brand strategy and marketing. Whether the ads worked can be tracked by capturing location data during a download.
Brooks called TV and outdoor ads new spokes on the advertising wheel, which complement the company's rising budget for Facebook, Google and other ads as opposed to stealing from it. As the costs of advertising on Facebook rise, and the expenses of making a game go down, TV looks relatively affordable.
"We know it delivers," he said. "We can't be sinking money into a deep hole."