Selling Electronic Play in Video Game Television Commercials

A few years ago, I asked my students in an American cultural history course to identify logos and slogans from their lifetime. Not surprisingly, since advertising bombards us through print, radio, television, and the Internet, the students did this easily (try this Logo Quiz game for yourself). After this exercise, the class discussed how advertising illustrates changes in social and cultural history. Take for example, the changes in television commercials from three different generations of video game consoles—the Magnavox Odyssey, the first video game console; the Sony PlayStation, the most popular fourth generation console; and Nintendo’s Wii U, the newest eighth generation console. Advertisements for these games help us better understand how marketers sold electronic game play as a family room activity, a gamer subculture, and a widespread cultural phenomenon during the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries.

When Magnavox released its Odyssey video game system in 1972, consumers needed an introduction to an entirely new product and form of play. Odyssey’s earliest commercials drew on familiar play spaces such as the playground to help portray the console as a “close circuit electronic playground.” As a “total play and learning experience,” the console also provided consumers with a new way to harness television to play and interact with their families. Indeed, a 1972 Odyssey commercial depicts a husband and wife playing video games by themselves and with their children. From its very beginning then, advertisers sold video game play as an ideal activity for the family room—a sacred space in the postwar, middle class, suburban home.

When Sony entered the video game console market more than 20 years later, video game technology wasn’t the only thing that changed. By the 1980s, companies and their advertisers no longer needed to explain what a video game was. Mattel spent much of the early 1980s comparing the superior graphics of their Intellivision to Atari’s 2600 and by the end of the decade, Sega began repositioning itself as an edgy alternative to Nintendo. Sony’s 1995 PlayStation launch commercial attempted to capture the video game market by demonstrating the system’s revolutionary 3D graphic capabilities and branding itself as a gamers’ console. Early PlayStation commercials appropriated cyber punk imagery reminiscent of such William Gibson novels as Neuromancer (1984) and Iain Softley’s 1995 film Hackers. A commercial titled “E NOS Lives”—or Red E = Ready, NOS = Ninth of September, Lives (the console’s release date)—even embedded game tips and cheat codes within the commercial to encourage serious players to record, playback, and find the hidden messages. Despite the widespread popularity of home game consoles, commercials such as these suggested that electronic play, at least on the PlayStation, had moved from the security of the family room to an underground out of the mainstream. 

Unlike Sony, Nintendo’s marketing rarely appeared edgy, and almost always articulated the message that their consoles proved safe for kids to play even when their parents weren’t watching. Nintendo’s 2012 Wii U launch commercial updated this message while constructing the console as an entirely new form of electronic play. Backed by the tagline “How U Will Play Next,” the commercial’s visuals reflected the fractured nature of contemporary life and offered the Wii U as a way to play and connect with each other. The opening camera shot moves from room to room, showing dozens of people independently using Wii U to dance, sing, watch movies, and play games. The commercial’s final shot reveals the rooms as part of a giant “U” structure, implying that wherever and however one uses the Wii U, they are part of a larger community of players.

As the Wii U commercial suggests, electronic play has not entirely disappeared from the family room, but as people increasingly play games anywhere and everywhere it will be interesting to see what advertisers will sell next.