Culture, Gaming, Media, TV & Radio

PlayStation: memorable moments in video game marketing

PlayStation symbols ad, SCEA, Jun 7, 2005, by David WulffMarketing and advertising can trigger memories just as the brands and products they are promoting can.

And even though marketers are responsible for many of us buying piles of tat we don’t need, interest in television shows such as drama series Mad Men or a magazine documentary such as Channel 4’s Top 100 TV Adverts (2003) shows you don’t have to be a fresh-faced marketing wannabe to be interested in the advertising that populates our world or the creativity that’s gone into making them.

The marketing and advertising campaigns for Sony’s video game brand PlayStation are particularly memorable for the millions, myself included, who grow up with gaming as their favourite pastime. Its campaigns have been accused of poor taste, sexism, racism and even animal cruelty – not that its rivals have done any better mind. This is not a defence of such things. Still, a number of PlayStation TV adverts are destine to be ingrained in my mind because of how bizarre, idiosyncratic and absurd they were.

Brand marketing is about attaching feelings and emotional associations to something symbolic (a logo/brand name) or inanimate (a product). PlayStation, and the agencies it has commissioned over the years, achieved exactly that with TV campaigns for its consoles and related games.

The early growth years of the original PlayStation and its successor saw many of the most challenging and, by many accounts, effective TV campaigns that – along with the games themselves – turned game consoles into desirable pieces of consumer electronics and gaming into a lifestyle. The 60-second ‘Mountain’ advert (2003), by TBWA London, depicts thousands of Brazilians hurrying to climb atop a colossal mountain of tussling bodies, to the innocence tones of Shirley Temple. However idealised and insane the reality of it may be, it pictures the idea of being part of a surging movement beautifully. The scale of it sticks in your mind – the bouncy ball Sony Bravia advert is striking for the same reason.

The PS1 and PS2 era saw PlayStation positioning gaming as the destination for escapism (‘Double Life’ (1998)). The place between home and work (‘Welcome to the Third Place’ (2000) by David Lynch). The place to express your fantasies and desires (‘Wolfman’ (2002)). To this day, I can’t explain the ‘Laughing Mouth’ (2003) ad, in which four doodle figures pass round a mouth that makes them laugh hysterically. That particular ad ends with the tagline “fun, anyone?” and it’s this tease, this invitation to entertainment in a land pitched as whatever you want it to be, that is probably the universal message behind PlayStation’s marketing.

That being said, there are times when spoof PR agency, Perfect Curve (as seen in BBC comedies W1A and Twenty Twelve, see video above), could probably have come up with better campaigns than the ones PlayStation has run. The ‘This is Living’ (2007) campaign – also from TBWA London – used to promote the launch of PS3 across Europe was a scattering of interesting and not-so-interesting fragments that missed the boat given the product’s pricing (£425, €600), Sony’s negative brand image and the ‘console war’ media narrative at the time.

The main ad campaign focused on a cast of misfits – a disgraced quiz show host, a footballer past his prime, a wannabe model, a detached mercenary and two greasy criminals who must have walked off the set of a Tarantino film – staying in an exotic hotel. Abstract, explicit seemly for the sake of it and wildly metaphorical (presumably the image of a grenade blowing up a suitcase full of money represented your bank balance after you coughed up for a PS3 at launch), this campaign alienated viewers more than its on-screen characters and failed to justify why they should part with their cash for Sony’s game console. On the other hand, its lack of accessibility or clear messaging is what still makes this campaign memorable for me, and that would be a win in some circles. Canny music choices – including Nino Rota’s soundtrack for the 1973 film, Amarcord, and Turkish band Moğollar – were the underrated high point of this whole campaign.

PlayStation rediscovering its mojo was the narrative that appeared again and again in the run up to, and months after, the launch of PS4 in November 2013. Putting the word ‘play’ at the heart of the campaign, backed up by visuals that reinforced PlayStation as the destination for all forms of it, PS4 was the deserving winner in the latest battle for hearts, minds and social media clout (read an in-depth analysis of the PS4 vs Xbox One campaigns by Nathen T White if you’d like to know more).

There are many, many more memorable system and game ads that come to mind, such as the US TV spots for Ratchet & Clank that were like a cross between MythBusters and Jackass, the superb Gears of War ‘Mad World’ ad from 2006 and Apple’s 2009 iPod Touch ad showing off the device’s new gaming prowess. After 20 years though, I’m impressed that PlayStation’s brand marketing campaigns in all their ridiculous, non-conformist and controversial glory can still dredge up memories long past. Fun times.

Image: David Wulff/Flickr

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