Today’s Gaming Commercials Are Missing the Mark

All this talk of the Wii launch news and revolutionizing gaming has me thinking back to a simpler time….

I remember the holiday of 1982. A few months before the big day in December, I was curled up on my couch with the Service Merchandise catalog, neatly cutting out pictures of “stuff I was laying claim to”. And at the top of that list was a little thing called the ColecoVision. (For the young folks that are reading, the ColecoVision was a console that represented the 2nd generation of gaming after the first big cartridge playing console, the Atari 2600.) Man, I had dreams about that thing — every night. The ColecoVision’s big sell was that it was much closer in graphical power to the machines in the arcades. (And in 1982, there was no place a young kid would rather be than in an arcade with an endless supply of quarters listening to Thriller on repeat.) And back then, when you talked about arcade quality games…….at home”? Complete euphoria.

ColecoVision wasn’t the only second generation gaming system out that holiday season in 1982. Atari was releasing their follow-up console — the Atari 5200 (Atari 2600 x 2…. get it?). I wasn’t that psyched about the 5200. Somehow they didn’t do the best job of marketing it — at least not to me. ColecoVision had great ads showing a big arcade machine shrinking into a ColecoVision and then showing split screen views to demonstrate how similar the games looked. Atari’s early 5200 marketing wasn’t quite as sexy.

So it was settled. I wanted a ColecoVision. No, I was getting a ColecoVision. It was literally number one on the list (with number two and three being ColecoVision cartridges, in order of preference, of course.) And there was nothing that holiday that could change my mind about this. At least I thought there wasn’t until one Saturday morning when I was watching cartoons and a commercial for a certain system came on….

Commercial fades in…. one kid sitting by himself in his room at his desk. He’s in front of the TV and he’s hunched over with joystick in hand playing an intense game of Pac Man. (I mean, this kid has all kinds of fruit and bells and space ships lined up on the bottom of the screen.) But amidst the ever present siren of Pac Man, a noise interrupts gameplay….and then, the horror…. it’s…. the telephone! (Ed note: Understand that there was no CallerID back then. And there weren’t many answering machines.) And while we expect to see our horror make it’s way to the kid’s face, somehow he seems strangely unphased. Almost…confident. The camera pans down to his hand on the controller….as he pushes the newly featured “Pause” button (labeled “PAUSE”). All action stops — siren, ghosts, yellow munching head — everything…. as the kid picks up his phone and says, “Hello?…..Hey, Judy….)

No, I didn’t immediately cross off my ColecoVision. But at that point….for just a brief millisecond, the commercial had made me think twice about my buying decision. They created an attractive setting and a situation. Like the kid who said “pretty sneaky, sis” after losing Connect Four. Somehow they caught my young believing mind off guard and showed a scene that I totally identified with. They didn’t change my mind completely — but they made me think twice about whether I made the right decision. And when you think about it, that’s the real purpose of advertising. And it’s a purpose that seems to have been lost on gaming companies — particularly those launching new systems (like Atari was in that commercial) over the years.

The 80s — that is the ten year period from 1980 – 1989 — is probably the most joked about period in American history. From fear of nuclear war and “the Russians” to David Lee Roth swinging across the screen on a rope, there was a lot about the 80s that didn’t quite make sense. But one thing that did make sense was the approach to game marketing.

The typical early 80s gaming ad (like the one above) would show one of a few scenarios: a couple of well groomed culturally diverse kids smiling and bouncing around a room with joysticks in hand. They’d shout things like, “Watch out for the Octoids!!” and “Look out for the spiders!”, but never quite losing their joy — or their smile. Or perhaps you’d see adults and kids playing together (undoubtedly an attempt to touch the heart of the absentee Dad who now has to find a way to forge a bond with his Gen-X little boy.) But as weird as these ads may have seemed, if you analyze the intent, there was quite a bit that they got right.

For one thing, the commercials created an atmosphere of fun. Whether it was a bunch of friends, or a family playing and laughing, it created a mood and put at least one thought in your mind: “Hey, if you never tried this before, who knows….it could be fun!”

Another smart idea which would seem obvious (but as we see today definitely isn’t) is the fact that they showed actual gameplay movies and well photographed pictures of the system itself. In recent years, obvious ideas like this seem to have been forgotten.

Marketing of consoles in subsequent years had more than a few problems. The largest problem being that there was no emphasis on the actual games. Moreover, gaming companies appeared to turn their creative control over to art school rejects who created commercials that were unique…. strange…..intriguing and perhaps even thought provoking — but had almost nothing to do with the actual system functionality.

Consider this ad that introduced the Sega Saturn to the United States in 1995. Frighteningly weird. A few gameplay movies played — although never taking center stage. They were almost an afterthought. (And notice whether or not you ever see the actual game console that’s being advertised):

Now look at the ad for the successor to the Saturn, the Dreamcast. This system was launched in September 1999. Sega goes from a few movies showing gameplay with the Saturn to no Dreamcast movies here.

Here’s an ad that looked to create a buzz about the forthcoming PlayStation 2 in March 2000. Problem is that it’s more conceptual that substantive. And like the Dreamcast ad, you don’t see an actual system pictured until the very end of the spot.

Lastly, take a look at this Xbox 360 ad. Now, as cool as these may seem, these might be the worst of the bunch. They’re certainly not the worst in terms of production quality. They look pretty cool. But at a time when the public at large (and basically anyone who wouldn’t bother having read this far in my post) doesn’t really know why they should be excited about getting an Xbox 360, why not invest advertising dollars showing some of the incredible online functionality and High Definition graphics that only Microsoft would be able to offer for the better part of a year? If there was ever a time to put an image of actual system functionality in the minds of the buying public in an attempt to educate them about why their lives would be more fun with your product, this was it. But instead they too chose the ‘conceptual advertising’ route, depicting a community double dutch event of some sort and what can best be described as an “invisible gun fight.” This is about as abstract a campaign and as far away from the actual next gen system as an ad can get.

Now, instead of the above, picture a scene where a kid is in his room watching a DVD on the 360 when out of the corner of the screen, he sees a pop up message indicating that his friend has shown up. He pauses the movie, puts on his headset…..”Hey Jeremy! Want to get in a game of Madden?” And then maybe for comedy after the kid loses, he says, I’m going back to my movie.

Or perhaps six kids standing around in caps and gowns….”Aw man, it just isn’t gonna be the same when we go away to school”. <Second kid> “Hey, we’ll stay connected using our 360!” (Switch the scene to a six-way split screen of typical dorm rooms.) Have the guys talk about class, or women….whatever.

By using either of those ads (which I’m sure cost significantly less money to develop) not only have you informed the public about the existence of the system, but you’ve given them a situation and a problem that it solves. For anyone who didn’t know about online play, now they know. For any consumers who didn’t realize that you could chat while playing….well, now you know. My point is that conceptual advertising is nice to watch — but it defeats the purpose of the ad when it’s not designed to inform the consumer. (Particularly with a console like the Xbox 360 that is probably one of the most underrated media hubs available today. Network stream music from PC, play games, download games, talk via headset, watch music videos, play DVDs, iPod integration, etc. Sounds like a missed opportunity.

It’s odd to look at the Atari add from 1979 and think about just how much information they communicated in thirty seconds. Then it makes you scratch your head to see the ad 20 years later that basically tries to re-shoot a scene from The Matrix.

But of course, what do I know? I’m just a kid who plays games. But, in the event that you’re a gaming exec and you’d like to talk about some of my other ideas, don’t hesitate to drop me a line! 🙂


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