Sure as death and taxes, trends in advertising change. What sells products in one time and place is far from guaranteed to sell them other places and times: just try selling Dutch mangle in 2012 London – you’d be brave merely to risk the looks of ludditic derision from the tech-savvy thrall. The inevitable change in advertisement technique is only accentuate when over the course of several iterations of the kind of product, the niche within which the companies seek to place their products changes, as has been the case with video game consoles. The change in the public face of video gaming is well crystallised in the changes in how consoles and their peripherals were marketed and they may, indeed, have been a cause of it.
ZX Spectrum (1982)
This is, I will concede: a bit of a cheat. The Spectrum was marketed mainly as a home computer, but prior to the proliferation of the IBM PC and compatibles, there was little in the way of disjunct between the home computer and a games console. Perhaps this greater orientation to the “real work” of computers is reflected in the comparatively sombre tone of the advert: computers will still, at this time, for work and not for play. The fact that the UK’s first wave of video games developers were glued to their Spectrums and Spectrum BASIC is just testament to a playful spirit in the computing community. Or, more likely, people just liked to find interesting ways in which to avoid work.
Nintendo Entertainment System (mid-1980s)
Here is where we see tropes emerging that will dictate the advertising of video games consoles until the release of the first PlayStation: mid- to late-teenage actors seemingly amazed by the graphical and abilities of their eight- or sixteen-bit consoles while sporting the most shit-eating of shit-eating grins, interspersed with real shit-eating-grin-inducing game footage.
Super Nintendo Entertainment System (1991)
Once again, people looking astounded at what the technology of the time can do. Again, we have teenagers looking far too pleased with what is going on in front of them. And, yes, again we have an almost sinister voiceover telling us what to expect.
Mega Drive/Genesis (1992)
Very little changes going a little further into the 1990s. The situation is more bizarre: I can’t decide whether the lead character in the advert is undergoing full-body augmentation a la Deus Ex or is booking himself in for some fashionable new Shoreditch haircut with a level of foresight behind the decision appropriate to that of a first-trimester foetus. The almost tragically cyberpunk feel of the advert is yet another nod to how “futuristic” this particular piece of technology is, and we again see interspersed footage of the blistering pace and clarity of the greatest Sega had to offer in the sixteen-bit era.
Sony changed everything: they no longer sought to market their games to the teenage market as Sega and Nintendo had done previously. They realised that this prior market had grown, and would more than likely take their old hobby with them if the correct marketing strategy were used. Admittedly, this is again a little bit of a cheat as it is an advert for the peripherals for the system rather than the system itself, but it is indicative of the tack taken by Sony Computer Entertainment in marketing. The advert is a nod to martial arts films rather than a mere indication of gameplay, with the advert’s narrative mashing the game footage displayed. Video games move from being portrayed as the preserve of the bespectacled basement-dwelling social misfit, but also a pastime acceptable for those with more legitimate interests in media consumption.
When a video game console advertisement is banned, it would be reasonable to say that we have seen a large shift from the friendly “how amazed are these kids?” model of advertising that we saw in the 1980s and 1990s. Whether or not you feel the advert to be in bad taste, the fact that Microsoft here are implying that people of all ages should enjoy video games is the completion of the trend that we saw between the Mega Drive and the PlayStation’s advertising: the marketing has ceased to be about the games directly, but selling the lifestyle of someone who enjoys the medium – someone relaxed enough to “play more.” This PlayStation 2 advert of the same year by David Lynch underscores the same trend.
PlayStation 3 (2007)
Games console advertising is no longer about games: it is about the technology. The complete fruition of “geek chic” has made technology cool and games consoles are, well, technology when you get down to it. The unfortunate thing about all of this is that the Cell Processor, while an impressive chip, remains a mystery to anyone who sees this advert: the technology is treated only as a buzzword and the method of marketing seems almost clinical. While predictable, the early commercials at least had some heart to them, some honesty. Rather than selling delight, these companies now sell commidified, cold hardware.