The Third Place: Bizarre Video Game Commercials

The games industry has often pushed the boundaries of television advertising

The Third Place: Bizarre Video Game Commercials
Source: Sony.

When I was a kid, video games were largely made for — and marketed to — teenage boys. We were the ones who filled arcades on the weekend, and we were the ones who harassed our parents for the latest big release (my childhood was pretty much framed around the epic Nintendo-versus-Sega turf wars at school in the 8 and 16-bit eras).

Over the last couple of decades, the game industry has changed. Not only are games now a mainstream pursuit — a sector that turns over more money than the film industry — but as games have become more and more widely accepted, their audience has necessarily expanded. The generation who grew up in the days of the NES and Sega Master System are now in our ’30s, and the group who came before us (and who were weened on the likes of the Atari 2600 and the early years of PC gaming) are now in their ’40s and beyond. Younger generations of gamers have grown up with more choice than ever around what games they play and how they play them (take the train on any day in a big city, and you’ll find enormous numbers of people around you playing games on their phones, for example).

Sony’s “PlayFace” commercial for PlayStation 3.

Games themselves have evolved radically since those early Mario and Sonicdays, too. A wide spectrum of gamers and tastes are now catered for; blockbuster franchises like The Sims demonstrated that building a virtual doll house and filling it with a simulated family can be just as — if not more — compelling than blasting aliens or saving the princess. And in more recent times, some games have even broken free of many traditional mechanical constraints; in a title like Gone Home, there’s nothing to shoot, no bad buys to kill, no “levels” to clear and no final boss. Instead, the story — the narrative — is the star, and the interaction is about inhabiting a character and exploring her world through her eyes.

As I’ve watched the industry change over the years, one thing has really fascinated me: video game marketing. I have always been mesmerized by video game television advertising, primarily, I think, because of its sheer weirdness.

In some ways, I’d say that today’s video game commercials are mostly pretty tame in the sense that they seem to be moving closer and closer to fairly traditional film marketing (most newly-released games are advertised through carefully-crafted trailers, for example). Maybe as video games themselves become more mainstream, their advertising follows suit? I can’t say for certain, but that’s definitely my impression.

Yet only a single console generation ago, many game commercials were bizarre. The ads that fell flat or simply confused people were even more interesting than the truly successful campaigns, at least to me. Here are just a few of my favourite video game commercials — I’ll share my thoughts about each one as I go.

Beyond

It shouldn’t be any surprise that PlayStation campaigns will feature heavily in this article. After all, it could be argued that Sony redefined video game marketing when the original PlayStation was introduced in the mid-nineties. There are many odd PlayStation advertisements to cover, but the one that first enters my mind is the Play B3yond campaign, which introduced the PlayStation 3 to the North American market in late 2006.

The campaign contained several commercials that all revolved around somewhat obtuse demonstrations of the PlayStation 3’s considerable hardware power. Like many of the PlayStation 2 ads that came before, this campaign wasn’t really about directly showing gameplay footage or anything of the sort; these ads were deliberately vague, bizarre, and were intended to get people talking.

The video above — entitled “Baby” — focuses on the PlayStation 3’s power to manipulate emotions. The baby veers rapidly between emotional extremes, perhaps reflecting an innocent player lost in the hypnotic spell of the all-powerful machine.

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The “Rubik’s Cube” spot is pretty straightforward while also being delightfully clever. I love the creativity behind this one; the Rubik’s Cube is so iconic and well-understood by most people and the idea of having the PlayStation 3 solve the puzzle in seconds (only to triumphantly explode the cube upon finishing) is genius, I think. Sony was able to immediately communicate the immense power of the console without quoting a single stat about the actual hardware.

And then there’s the “Eggs” spot, which is all about the Six Axis controller (itself replaced fairly rapidly by the Dual Shock 3 controller — it’s easy to forget that the original Six Axis did not have force feedback of any kind).

While I think Nintendo were better able to communicate motion control with their original Wii campaigns, this is still a pretty solid way of demonstrating the Six Axis’ capabilities in a thirty second TV ad.

Playface

My next pick is another PlayStation campaign. This time it’s the Playfacecampaign from 2009, which coincided with the global launch of the slim version of the PlayStation 3 hardware.

The campaign was created by Widen + Kennedy, and as I think about why I like it, two major factors spring to mind. Firstly — just as with the Play B3yond spots — there’s no actual game footage here; we are watching the unconscious expressions of people who are playing the games, which I think is a really unique approach. And secondly, from a branding perspective, there’s no specific mention of “PlayStation” or “Sony” (admittedly, the hardware itself is displayed sporting the “PS3” monicker); rather, the four shape icons from the controller are the key branding element.

Play Sega Saturn…or else!

I have to preface this next section by saying that some of my favourite video game commercials relate to Sega.

In my view, Sega’s formal entry into the home console market was a breath of fresh air for the entire industry. Their television campaigns were bold and aggressive, and they directly referenced and challenged their biggest competitor (Nintendo). This was controversial both in terms of Japanese corporate culture (which frowned upon such references), and also because it was a boldly different direction for the industry as a whole.

Here in Australia, Sega’s consoles and games were distributed by a company called OziSoft. The most memorable feature of OziSoft, from my memory, is how utterly lacklustre their overall support for Sega products was — both in terms of marketing and distribution. As a result, we didn’t get any of the awesome Sega commercials that both Japan and North America received.

I think my favourite Sega campaign was the Segata Sanshiro commercials, aired in Japan for the launch of the Sega Saturn.

The above video is a compilation of multiple Segata Sanshiro commercials. These ads are pretty straightforward: if you’re doing anything other than playing the Sega Saturn, you’ll be punished by a frightening Judo master with a chip on his shoulder. I personally love this description of Segata Sanshiro’s background from the Wikipedia page:

Sanshiro lives as a hermit high on a mountain, devoting his life to intensive Sega Saturn training. He trains physically every day by carrying around a giant Sega Saturn on his back and punching buttons on its giant controller, as well as mentally by breaking stacks of blocks with his head. His intense training has resulted in his ability to make people explode twice by throwing them, which he does with ease. He also frequently visits the city to seek out people who are not playing the Sega Saturn, and harshly teaches them a lesson. Sanshiro is a serious man with a firm sense of duty, who believes that playing video games is one of the most treasured activities in life.

Honestly, it’s hard to argue with Sanshiro’s world view. 😉

Theater of the Eye

Sega’s bizarre advertising campaigns weren’t limited to Japan by any means. Sure, we missed out on all the really cool ones here in Australia, but the United States received its fair share of commercials that bordered on the insane.

When the Sega Saturn launched in the U.S., it was accompanied by a campaign called Theater of the Eye, which featured around four separate ads in total.

The ads are pretty self-explanatory; they examine the goings-on inside a human’s eyeball and brain as they are exposed to the Sega Saturn’s incredible graphics. All those polygons!

You still don’t have a Sega CD?

Here’s another Sega gem from the early ’90s, this time for the Sega CD, which was a hardware add-on for the Genesis (also known as the Mega Drive outside North America).

In some respects, this commercial reminds me of the Segata Sanshiro spots, in the sense that it also follows a highly aggressive/confrontational style. It’s a little less tongue-in-cheek than the Sanshiro ads, though.

Sega CD commercial, uploaded by SegaCDUniverse.

At this point in video game history, things were really heating up. The CD-ROM format had started to emerge as a format for video games in the late-80s and just about every major hardware manufacturer was jumping on the bandwagon. In the end, Sega introduced three major models of Sega CD (the first and second-generation versions as well as the late entry of the Sega CD-X/Multi-Mega).

Sega Genesis II with Sega CD II.

I actually owned a Sega Mega CD (the second-generation model, which sat alongside the Mega Drive II). Although my experience with it was mixed, there were some incredible gems (like the well-received Sonic CD). But even some of the more dodgy “interactive movie” games seemed pretty incredible to me back then, including the game that actually came in the box with my Mega CD: Road Avenger. I’ve got very fond memories of the ill-fated add-on.

Road Avenger (image uploaded by Shin Force).

So there you have it, a brief walkthrough of some personal favourite weird video game commercials. I hope you enjoyed these. If you have any suggestions of your own, please do comment with a link; I’d love to see them.

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