The Drum takes a look at the memorable marketing that helped transform gaming from a niche hobby to a cultural heavyweight, polling some of The Drum’s biggest gaming fans to spotlight the best ads Xbox and PlayStation have delivered down the years.
Watch the sector mature before your very eyes over 20 years as the appeal grows into the mainstream and the tech diminishes the need for imagination in advertising.
PlayStation: Mental Wealth, 1999, TBWA\London
For many, TBWA's pre-millenium work promoting the super-powerful Japanese PlayStation laid the foundations for the lasting success of the brand for the following five console generations. Ads were gritty, grimy, weird, and most importantly, unmissable.
Two decades before every huge multinational corporation shoehorned in a message about mental health, PlayStation creeped out Brits with ‘Mental Wealth’.
In 1999, a Scottish alien waxed lyrical about human endeavour. The spot probably also foretold AR filters and the like on Snapchat.
The young Dumbartonshire actress took home a tidy £8,000 to be the face of nightmares for the two decades that followed.
TBWA London worked with Black Dog Films and RSA Films on this commercial. Director (and Aphex Twin collaborator) Chris Cunningham had to follow up a grand spot from David Lynch.
PlayStation: Double Life, 1999, TBWA\London
Double Life is the ad that sold the masses on gaming. Here, a hugely diverse cast of grimy people convey the benefits of acting out their darkest inhibitions in the virtual world.
Copywriter James Sinclair, art director Ed Morris and creative director Trevor Beattie took a sector that was previously product-led and competitor focused (Sega does what Nintendon’t) and created a lifestyle brand that resonated through culture.
“The competitors were skewed towards kids," David Wilson, head of PR for Sony's UK games division claimed at the time. This certainly wasn’t for kids.
The ad saw a European run, despite its UK heritage. It made gaming accessible. Anyone could identify as a digital misanthrope leading a double life. Did the trio inspire the generation of virtual trolling and misinformation that was to follow?
Sinclair has previously admitted that the grand-standing ad came from a limitation – the games, while hugely impressive-looking at the time, “broke the spell” of the copy. And we can all agree, it was better left to the imagination.
Xbox: Champagne, (sometimes known as ‘Life is Short’), 2001, BBH London
Now, Microsoft's Xbox followed, and it had big shoes to fill.
This 2001 spot is from BBH and French creative duo Fred and Farid (whatever happened to those guys?). 'Champagne' is a visceral shot of a life, birthed and extinguished. A flying baby, boy, man, corpse serves as cork.
It debuted late in a rough year. The reminder that ‘life is short’ shocked on one level, and on the next, positioned gaming as a worthy waste of time.
Champagne was an early viral video. The creative duo considered video compression as part of their distribution strategy - viewers had to be able to email it around. And they certainly did.
They had to. It only ran on TV briefly until it inspired a few letters to the ASA and got banned. But by then, it was out there. And we were all paying attention to Microsoft’s new console, which launched with a bang, or more accurately, a pop.
PlayStation 2: Mountain, 2003, TBWA-London,
Want to see games? Go watch a trailer or play a demo. You don't build a gaming brand showing games - or so it appears.
So, we've moved onto the PlayStation 2. TBWA London continues to ignore gaming footage and instead compiles a mountain of gamers in a scene that will be familiar to anyone who has watched World War Z.
It's a spot so distanced from what you'd expect in gaming that the end reveal lands all the more powerfully. The mountain reminds me of an online leaderboard for a violent military shooter.
This ad was part of a wider 'Fun, Anyone?' platform. During this era, you'll see a lot of madcap ideas come to life, representation the emotions of gaming. You can just tell they had a lot of fun making these ads.
Xbox 360: Stand Off, 2006, McCann Erickson-72andSunny
Next, we have an ad the internet thought was banned – for the Xbox 360. In 2006, McCann Erickson and 72andSunny encapsulated the seriousness and stupidity of mass online multiplayer with a huge finger gun stand-off.
The Xbox 360 had a lot of convincing to do and was still making bold ads that riled the authorities - allegedly.
This US ad barely saw a release and never made it to TV, sparking speculation that it was banned. Microsoft denied this. Gamespot theorises that the violence exhibited in the spot could have clashed with a real-world shooting and in the end wasn’t worth the risk to broadcast.
That said 15 years later, the ad still encapsulates hardcore online gaming - for better or worse.
Dead Island: Reveal trailer, 2011, Axis Animation
Now it is 2011 and small studios with zombie games are realising that they should try out this marketing thing that has worked so well for the consoles.
There's no BBH, or TBWA, or McCann on this ad (as far as I can tell); instead a Glasgow animation studio just round the corner from my house made this.
A stunning backwards scene of zombie violence. It gave me goosebumps the first, and second, time I watched it and inspired several of those awful 'are video games art?' features.
During my research, this spot cropped up the most often from my interviewees. Which is funny, because it's not really an ad, in the traditional sense anyway. We can start to sense a shift in the power here. Anyone can make a memorable spot. Pity the game didn't live up to the ad.
Gears of War 3: Mad World, 2011, McCann
Again we've another trailer, rendered with in-game graphics and elevated with Gary Jules' soundtrack. Is it an ad? A bit.
McCann oversaw campaigns for Xbox's first-party titles like Gears of War and Halo, but the work for Gears of War 3 included a few firsts for a gaming campaign (like a TV announcing in almost real-time how many people are playing it online).
The spot carries an emotional heft and when you're playing the game, the ad hangs heavy in your mind.
It was the second time the series had used the Mad World theme, launching the series in 2006 with it too.
Over the next few years, the first-party gaming franchises kept delivering and gaming became a huge market. While Xbox and PlayStation slugged it out, Nintendo did its thing in the niche and mobile gaming started sucking at the market too.
But has the creativity drained from the advertising of the sector?
Now with photo-realisitic graphics and all the processing power you'd ever need, games can conjure the images that the ads once couldn't.
We've already all been convinced by the power of these two brands, and gaming in general. Now they compete for the loyalty of the masses for the next cycle once more.
Here are the latest ads promoting the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5. Who wins for you?
Xbox Series X: Us Dreamers – Power Your Dreams
215 McCann teamed with Reset, MPC and cool guy Daniel Kaluuya to show gamers how they can live their dreams. You'll see a lot of recognisable games and worlds, including the Halo series, which kicked it all off for Xbox.
PlayStation 5: The Edge has no Limited, Adam&EveDDB
Adam&EveDDB continues to cause waves (literally) on its newish PlayStation account. Another fantastical world and another whose-whose of people and craft.
No Limits replaces PlayStation's For The Players tagline. It's a big selling point. Now the players will soon have the console in their hands, they'll decide whether there are indeed any limits.
Got some suggestions of your own. Share them with me on Twitter here. Here's some that The Drum readers think you should see.
— Brian Millar (@arthurascii) November 5, 2020
Can I just vote for every single one of Rik Mayall's Nintendo ads?https://t.co/QXba4dQPTz — Leah Holmes (@leahmholmes) November 5, 2020
— Sefton Monk (@SeftonMonk) October 29, 2020
One of my favorite ads for a console:https://t.co/hCtZPQYJ6z — Ali (@notrealali1) October 28, 2020
Call of Duty ads backed by Eminem songs. They hooked me. Nailed the targeting of the 20-something male audience.https://t.co/SG9XgV7N0E
— Nick Thompson (@NickThompson20) October 29, 2020
First that came to my head...Sega's cyber razor cut: https://t.co/1N9MmqNs4b — Tony Faccenda (@TonyFaccenda) October 29, 2020
— jon mundy (@jonmundy) October 28, 2020
https://t.co/zCMNlvaIKN — Geoff Glendenning (@GeoffG2) November 10, 2020
— Geoff Glendenning (@GeoffG2) November 10, 2020