Gabey Goh
Aug 25, 2016

Safety key for Pokemon Go brand following Japan death

The impact of a recent accident on the brand may be minimal, but Niantic should nonetheless do more to promote safe play.

A sign warns drivers against playing Pokemon Go
A sign warns drivers against playing Pokemon Go

The first Pokemon Go-related death in Asia has been reported in Japan, after a 39-year-old driver playing the game behind the wheel hit two pedestrians, resulting in one victim dying from her injuries.

According to a report by Bloomberg, police said the incident happened on 23 August in the city of Tokushima. The driver of the car was taken into custody after the accident and told police that he had been playing the popular augmented reality game and hadn't seen the two pedestrians.

"We express our deep condolences to the family and acquaintances," Niantic, the developer of Pokemon Go, said in a statement. "We are still looking into the details of the incident. We will take any necessary steps following the completion of an investigation."

This isn’t the first incident linked to the game, with a Vice News video report recounting over 75 reports of violence, crime, and deaths since the game’s launch in July.

Damage control

Pokemon Go and Niantic have an issue on their hands as the game continues to roll out in more markets around the world, introduce new features and strike deals with brands.

Anna Chew, general manager of Havas Worldwide Siren Singapore, pointed out that governments around the world are already issuing safety warnings when the app launches in their country. She said those behind Pokemon Go need to be “proactive and prepared rather than just waiting for…possible backlash and potential lawsuits”.

The developers have absolved themselves from responsibility of accidents such as this via Pokemon Go’s Terms of Use statement. It has also released three updates on its app with messages focusing on safety. But it could be doing more, said Michelle Tham, MD of Hill + Knowlton Strategies Singapore.

“Given the real risk of more accidents, there is a need for the brand to step up its public education and safety messages,” Tham said. “How the brand demonstrates empathy, acknowledgement of the gravitas of the situation and how quickly they take steps to push public education over the next 24 hours will be critical in determining the impact to the brand.”

Alina Morais, regional PR manager for Asia-Pacific at Isobar, said the company could build on its warnings to “be aware of surroundings” by issuing tips on staying safe, either via social media or direct to players via email. Chew suggested the company could work with authorities to develop safety programs—putting up signs along major highways, sensitive areas like religious places, graves and so on.

A more extreme bid to curb addiction could involve a lock feature set on a timer, Chew added.

“While Niantic isn’t liable for damage, injuries or deaths that result from playing, just as a carmaker isn’t liable for drivers who drive recklessly, that shouldn’t stop them from going out with renewed warning/safety communications,” Morais agreed.

But she said she expected damage to the brand, and external brands involved with the property, to be minimal. “We’ve seen Snapchat weather the storm of deaths caused by its speed filter, and it’s likely Niantic will weather this as well,” she said. “However, each brand associated with Pokemon should reassess their association and determine if their individual brand values might be compromised.”

In that respect, the relationship between brands and Pokemon Go is no different to that with an ambassador that lands in hot water, Morais said.

A further step to minimise fallout, Chew suggested, would be for Pokemon Go to emphasise the game’s positive influence on society: “Like families taking strolls in parks and going outdoors; dads being designated drivers for a family ‘catch day’; couch potatoes suddenly walking again. The exercise and fitness aspect is always a good story to tell.”

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