GameSpite Quarterly 8 | Rated M for "Mature": How Advertising (Ostensibly) Grew Up in the PlayStation Era

While a book, movie or video game usually has the luxury of the audience seeking it out and investing their time willingly into the product, an advertisement has an infinitesimally small window of opportunity to hook someone in. With 30 seconds for a television spot where the viewer might already be in the kitchen, a single page turn that will turn to another as soon as the reader sees nothing they’re interested in, or even the speed of a car driving past a billboard, advertisements don’t have time to waste. When they manage to get the attention that they seek, they then have to make sure they haven’t wasted their audiences’ time.

The video game ad had the playground to itself for a long time once the Nintendo Entertainment System became the 800-pound gorilla in the room, an existence itself owed to the savvy marketing that allowed it to sneak onto shelves that had been burned by the previous generation of video games. When the word Nintendo became synonymous with video games for the average American consumer, they scarcely needed to worry about a hook for their advertisements at all. Television commercials showed up during Saturday morning cartoons, and print ads were plastered throughout magazines dedicated to video games. They were selling to an audience who was already buying, or at least asking their parents to buy for them. Without healthy competition, they were able to simply focus on the games themselves, whether they wanted to do so in a straightforward or irreverent manner. The television ad for Super Mario Bros. 3 said only one thing: There is a new Mario game. And that was more than enough.

To strain a metaphor, if that was the playground, then the Genesis showing up was the first encounter with a bully. Advertisements in the 16-bit era had to do more than proclaim the existence of a video game, they had to convince you to own the system that you could play it on. There had been plenty of competition during the ’70s and ’80s, but everyone knew what the big game in town was during those decades. The ’90s brought the first full-fledged console war and with it the requisite mudslinging. Sega did what Nintendon’t became a slogan to divide the audience by drawing a line in the sand predicated on the notion that most potential video game buyers would only have the time or money to own one system. The advertisements had to ensure that consumers chose theirs. Sega entered the market looking to take on a monopoly, and they carved their niche through any means necessary. They fought dirty, hooking eyeballs that had moved past childhood and onto adolescence with quantifiable ’tude and a swagger that Nintendo couldn’t quite muster. It wasn’t long before Nintendo was playing it loud in retaliation, but one thing hadn’t changed in the process of a one-horse race becoming an actual competition. While acknowledging that the kids who had grown up with Nintendo were in fact growing up, video game advertisements were still targeted at young video game players, in the places video game players would see them such as magazines and cartoon blocks. They remained content to target the wallets of parents rather than the kids actually absorbing the ads.

The Sony PlayStation’s marketing began with a bang when they announced the price of their system to undercut Sega’s new Saturn console, beating them at the game they had brought to bear against the Super Nintendo. A successful marketing campaign had less to do with the innate quality of the product than it did with simply being better than the competition by any margin. It would have been very easy for Sony to run with this status quo by spending years extolling the shortcomings of the Saturn and the Nintendo 64, and there was certainly no shortage of advertisements doing just that once Sony’s system hit the market. However, Sony wasn’t content to simply play the same ad game that had been played for years by its direct competitors. While Nintendo and Sega knew that video game players always had time to play video games and thus would always be able to be hooked solely on the presence of a new video game, Sony took the increasing median age of a gaming player base to heart in a way that its competitors had only played lip service to in their race to be the coolest kid on the swing-set. They seemed aware that their competition wasn’t only other video games, but movies, and television, and hobbies not tied to flickering screens at all. Leisure was assumed for children, but teenagers and adults had ever increasing responsibilities and ever shrinking time and video games were only one thing to fill that time with. In shooting for the easy mark of a younger player base Sega and Nintendo had pigeonholed their audience in a way that, no matter how cool they attempted to be, games would still be seen as kid stuff. Sony seized the opportunity laid out before them with both hands.

Teenagers and adults might have had less time for hobbies and entertainment than children, but they had something more important than that. They had disposable income from part-time jobs and full-time careers, and they wouldn’t need to beg their parents for an allowance to purchase one or two video games a year. They could see an advertisement, decide that they were interested, and purchase the game. Unfortunately for Sony, “It’s a video game!” was no longer a persuasive enough argument for an audience who was spending their own money. They had to work harder to hook the attention of potential buyers and convince them that they were worth spending their money on. They actually had to advertise, and the first step was to put advertisements where those buyers could see them. It wasn’t that Nintendo and Sega had never put ads on television during times when parents might have been watching or in magazines without “Game” or “Power” in their names, but when they did it was the exception rather than the rule. Sony advertised in entertainment magazines aimed at television and movie fans and ran commercials during prime-time regularly with the full knowledge that Sega and Nintendo weren’t their only competition for dollars and thumbs. By playing ball with the wider world of advertising outside of the video game industry, Sony tapped into an audience that could very easily have been ignored, but it also meant they had to change the way that video games were advertised on a base level. They had to deal with the broader world of advertising and all of the established tenants therein.

Looking back on the advertisements that Sony and its third parties from the mid-’90s into the next decade, it’s easy to see the lessons that the industry had picked up from Hollywood and television. Sex sells, and the sizzle’s more important than the cut of meat. It was during the PlayStation’s lifespan that a company like Eidos Interactive relied more heavily on increasingly rounded renders of Lara Croft or the open relationship of Rain and Hana than on screen shots and gameplay. Final Fantasy VII and Squaresoft took the ball of misdirection and ran with it, presenting television ads with no gameplay footage at all in favor of showcasing their pre-rendered cinema scenes. A print advertisement for a light gun peripheral that caused the telvision to ooze gore when shot reveled in the controversy that Mortal Kombat had caused during the previous generation with its levels of violence. Advertisements then, as before and as now, had to be attention-grabbers. But even as Sony targeted an increasingly adult audience it became clear that they were simply following the same demographic from the days of the NES. The five-year-old who had cut his teeth on Super Mario Bros. was now fifteen, and the advertisements reflected adolescence rather than maturity, aging rather than growing. While the market was growing larger than it ever had before and advertisements were becoming commonplace rather than niche, the contents of those ads remained squarely aimed at a young male demographic.

It would be easy to condemn Sony and their third parties for their practices in marketing during the latter half of the ’90s, but the 18-to-35 male demographic wasn’t something that they invented. In looking to Hollywood and television for how to bring gaming from a substantial niche to something truly mainstream, they took to heart all of the lessons that those industries used to great effect. While the print ad for Deathtrap Dungeon might be as embarassing now as it was in 1998, it’s easily remembered precisely because of the image of a leather-clad dominatrix standing on the page with whip at the ready. Sadomasochism had nothing to do with the game advertised other than word-association via “dungeon,” but it could hook eyes in the same way that trailers for R-rated movies would often throw in a shot of a woman’s robe dropping at her feet to convince every 15-year-old boy watching that there was more reason than mere explosions to sneak into the movies in question. Squaresoft’s proclamation that Final Fantasy VII was never coming to a theater near you threw down a gauntlet that gaming was going to take on Hollywood directly while using images that were equally on par with Toy Story to the layman’s eye; never mind that the game never looked that good. For a month or so, my father actually knew what a Final Fantasy game was. It was “that new game with the really good graphics”.

In short, it worked. It worked stupendously well. Sony sought to drag the video game market out of a kids-only niche that persisted even while Doom and Mortal Kombat were causing controversies over their violence, and even if they and their third parties used similarly controversial ways of grabbing attention, they used their 30 seconds in a meaningful way. Crass, sexist, and violent though many of the ads for games then may have been, they grabbed attention. And that wasn’t the only trick up their sleeve. Crash Bandicoot subverted the idea of what a gaming mascot was through a series of live action advertisements, easily taking the edge that Sonic had in the Genesis race without seeming like he was trying too hard. Crash’s ads were almost identical to an ad campaign that began around the same time with a bit of fanfare. Those ads, still running today for Jack in the Box, both involved pitches being pushed around deadpan humor coming from a ridiculously out-of-place mascot. The similarity in the campaigns may or may not have been intentional, but if video games and fast food could live together harmoniously in advertising groupthink, then maybe the former had truly made it after all. Cheekily pushing things that are no damn good for you is the backbone of the American advertising industry.

Not everything came up roses during the PlayStation’s reign. u r not [red]e was a bafflingly obtuse launch campaign, the ads full of sex or violence being used to sell video games had common enemies in both parents used to games being kids stuff and gamers who were just embarassed by the representation being given to the world at large, and frankly Crash was a far better commercial mascot than video game hero. But when a game like Parappa the Rapper could be created, localized, and advertised during prime time television, it was clear that the paradigm had shifted. To the max. Games that would have been entirely ignored in the past or relegated to the pages of Electronic Gaming Monthly instead had their chance to shine thanks to the strength of well-made telvision commercials and the PlayStation brand having been made the symbol of the next cool thing.

Today, the video game advertising landscape doesn’t look so different from the one used for movies, television, music, fast food, or really much of anything save for perhaps those commercials full of blue skies and green fields that want you to consult your physician. There are gaming ads that try to titillate and ads that appeal to a base level of violence, and there are ads that sell themselves on visuals you don’t actually see anywhere in the games themselves.

The magazine stills of yesterday have given way to the bullshots of today. But just as many advertisers are trying to be artistic, or at least use a touch of class, such as Microsoft’s campaigns for Halo or Gears Of War? on the Xbox 360. Gaming ads show up before films just as ads for Coke do. Taking themselves out of a place of niche and obscurity, Sony managed to bring gaming into the mainstream by using every trick that other mediums were already using while simultaneously making themselves the coolest kid on the jungle gym. The one in the denim jacket and shades who had a girlfriend in Canada. Maybe he was trying too hard, but at least he was trying to show that even the cool kids could still have fun on the playground.

By Marc Host? | May 9, 2011 | Last: Lara Croft & the Theatre of the Mind | Next: Suikoden