“Well played, Mauer.”
These three words are cemented into my memories of PlayStation lore, and as a Sony diehard for 5 generations now, that’s saying a lot. This, and many other memorable quips, were the legacy of PlayStation’s greatest marketing campaign, starring the legendary Kevin Butler. Now, Sony faces perhaps the biggest competitive fight of its 30+ year history, not to mention PR issues related to the release of the PS5, where pandemic-induced manufacturing delays and bot-powered scalping are keeping the systems out of the hands Sony wants them to be in. PlayStation needs another Kevin Butler, a can’t-miss marketing campaign that makes their commercials into must-see-TV.
Just like Howard Phillips was the baby-faced, bow-tie wearing identity of Nintendo during its nascent journey into the American market, Kevin Butler (played by actor Jeremy Lambert) was PlayStation for two glorious years. The commercials were irreverent, funny, and Butler was the perfect pitchman. They became part of the cultural zeitgeist, talked about at the water cooler on the level of the enormously popular ESPN “This is Sportscenter” commercials.
Most of the commercials centered around a supposed consumer reading their “Dear PlayStation” letters, and Butler responding while footage from the games played for effect. They highlighted nerdy gamers, kids, concerned girlfriends, you name it. And they showed people of all ages playing, a key idea to this day. Each commercial hilariously had Butler with a different job title based on the game or product he was pitching, with the ad for Sony’s online FPS game M.A.G. even playing it for extra laughs. Butler was comic gold, pulling off the self-referential and completely-unaware duality perfectly. It was brilliant marketing that sadly ended in a lawsuit when Butler appeared in a tire company’s commercial featuring Mario Kart.
Sony has had several marketing campaigns for the various PlayStation consoles since the Kevin Butler/”It Only Does Everything” days, but the fact that I can’t name a single one is telling. I think it’s a safe bet that, if you were to conduct a focus group with a 25–40-year-old demographic, the results wouldn’t be any different. The campaigns have shown off the games, they’ve had taglines, all the requisite stuff, but nothing has come close to the magical days of the “VP of Making Things Awesome” commercials.
Think about how well-received a campaign on this level could be right now when none of the other competitors are doing much in the way of coordinated advertising either. The move from cable TV to streaming and YouTube as the main avenues for entertainment consumption would make a campaign of this type more challenging than before, but not insurmountable. Streaming services like Hulu and YouTube TV have commercials embedded in them, and of course YouTube proper has commercials in front of most videos, so it’s not that high of a mountain to climb.
Sony needs to give gamers a mea culpa in the worst way, with the PS5 inaccessible to most gamers who weren’t lucky enough to stumble into one. Pre-orders were a disaster almost from the beginning, with Sony loudly proclaiming that they would give eager early-adopters plenty of notice before they went live. That “plenty of notice” turned out to be 12 hours, which promptly went to zero notice when some retailers immediately started selling them. Since then, bots and scalpers have been scooping up available units within seconds of them going live, crashing sites and frustrating would-be purchasers around the world.
Sony has been largely silent on the issues, leading gamers and influencers alike to ponder whether they even care, as long as the units are selling to someone. They should care greatly, of course, as most would-be PS5 owners can’t or won’t pay the exorbitant prices the scalpers want to charge, and scalpers with storage units full of idle PS5’s don’t generate game sales.
Imagine if Sony created a commercial where it flashes the outside of PlayStation World Headquarters, then cuts to the new Kevin Butler banging on the keyboard and yelling in delight, “Yes I’m in the queue!”, only to bemoan seconds later, “what do you mean it’s sold out!?”. He or she then turns to the camera and says “we can’t get one either’, before going on to assure the gaming public that they know they screwed up and are working on every possible solution. Literally, anything at this point would be better than the radio silence they’ve been practicing. Self-effacing humor isn’t exactly the norm for the Japanese, but it would go a long way to putting a face to the company, something the seemingly charisma-less Jim Ryan isn’t really cut out for.
Will it happen? Probably not, but there’s always hope. Eventually, PS5 will have a ton of amazing exclusives that they will want to talk about, so the “sorry, our bad” commercial I described above could be the perfect kick-off to a new campaign. Maybe Shuhei Yoshida, the closest thing Sony has to a beloved personality, can fill the role. Whatever the case, Sony needs to do something in terms of marketing, and get out in front of the myriad issues they are facing right now. In the meantime, we will always have the various Kevin Butler commercials, and that will be good enough. Seriously, watch them all, it’s the best forty minutes of your day.
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