Terrible Video Game Marketing

Advertising is a necessary evil. But as much as we complain about the barrage of product placement we’re bombarded with on a daily basis, there were quite a few that will always be remembered for their cleverness. These are not those ads. If we remember them at all, it’s for all the wrong reasons.

Usually, there’s a lot to like about video game ads, particularly television commercials. They’re selling fun and therefore made sure to up the silliness to help convey all the fun that could be had. Sure, maybe we rolled our eyes at this bespectacled nerd rapping about Legend of Zelda or some guy in a Crash Bandicoot costume harassing Nintendo over a megaphone of Sega just straight-up screaming at you. But they were still fun and, in many cases, timeless. 

And then there’s this ad for a product that I struggle to categorize as a video game…

Sure. This black and white LCD handheld looks quite primitive. But that’s only because it was. This came out in 1998, a time when even the Gameboy was sporting color graphics. That’s fine – graphics aren’t everything. It’s the games that matter. But any attempt to generate even a modicum of excitement won’t succeed with game titles such as SPACE WAR, PING PONG, RACE CAR and SHOOTING ATTACK. Even the most terrible Atari 2600 games at least spent more than 30 seconds coming up with a name.

...or maybe not.

And I have a bit of bad news. This ad straight up lies about the number of games it professes to offer. They count skill levels and speed options as different games. That’s like classifying an everyday wardrobe change as a form of dissociative identity disorder. 

But while the commercial started off as an exercise in histrionics, ends with straight up stupidity. A disembodied hand callously tosses out a Super NES. “Never ever buy those expensive cartridges again”, the ad proclaims. Because a cheap, graphically-challenged LCD game offers the same stimulation as a game that had been lovingly crafted by a talented team of artists and programmers.

But hey does your Super NES cartridge have a built-in Calculator? Touché, Pro 200. Touché.

Awesome green cap not included.

I’m thoroughly convinced that whomever came up with this ad is of the antiquated notion that all video games are the same and infinitely interchangeable. They’re like some well-meaning but clueless relative who goes into a game store to buy you a gift. But instead of buying that one game that goes for the standard, new game price, they think they’re doing you a favor by buying up a handful of loose discs from the bin – usually consisting of old sports games and rushed out-the-door licensed shovelware. “A game’s a game. What difference does it make if it’s the latest Grand Theft Auto or Party Babyz for the Wii?” 

“Just as good as any other game” – your grandmother

But in all seriousness, it’s very easy to criticize a game for its flaws, real or perceived. Maybe to appreciate the work that goes into these packages of digital fun, we need to take a step behind-the-scenes and lend a hand in their creation. Don’t let lack of qualifications stop you.Just write a check to one of those specialized training institutions and, in a few short months, you too can program A-list titles with just a controller and vague verbal instructions.

But don’t worry if designing the next hit A-list title is too lofty a goal. For-profit institute of learning, Westwood College, appears to also offer training in the laid-back world of game testing! You want more info? Of course you do.

I hope you didn’t start writing a check, because there’s a lot to devour here. And none of it is even remotely palatable.

Why is the boss telling these two stoners she needs another game designed? They’re just the game testers, right? Or are they the actual game designers doing double-duty because the company they work for is too cheap for low-level staff? And… need another game designed? Like games can just be whipped up on demand?  I fully admit I don’t have a firm grasp on the minutia of game design, but I know this cannot be accurate.

But then there’s the line about “tightening up the graphics”. Well, actually, thank goodness that’s being address. I can’t tell you how many times loose graphics fall out of my TV and spill all over the floor.

Take that, his mom.

When you mother said “you’ll never get ANYWHERE with those video games”, she was correct, lazily-written gamer stereotype (right). I did actually apply, and was offered, a job as a game tester for Acclaim way back in 1999. I didn’t take it but I got the gist of the job responsibilities. It wasn’t comfy couches and walls with a warm paint job. It was your typical cubicle farm: soulless and depressing.

The job didn’t require any sort of bachelors degree in ‘game test-o-logy” (or whatever piece of official-looking honor Westwood scribbles on a napkin) just the ability to write lengthy, thorough reports about that tiny section of game you play over and over and over and over and over until your eyes bleed out your head.

While still an undeniably important and admirable duty for quality control, this was not a job that would make your mother proud you spent all your time playing video games, no matter what the kid with the obvious pent-up rage issues says.  The hours: long and the wage: minimum.

I can safely assume this ad paints the actual job of game-testing with bright watercolors that don’t exist of any spectrum of reality. It therefore comes as no surprise that Westwood found itself in legal trouble on more than a few occasions, paying out almost $25 million dollars in settlements and penalties between 2009 and 2012. Westwood shut its doors in March of 2016, leaving its students with credits that are essentially worthless. Although no one can take away their newly-acquired graphic-tightening skills.

All this complaining about terrible marketing has me a little hungry. Maybe breakfast?  

Okay, cool. Kellogg’s appears to be targeting those who grew up with the classic Nintendo Entertainment System and/or the retro gaming crowd. As a member of both those demographics, I’m having a hard time with it. Call me an annoying purist, but while this on-screen couple is attempting to recapture their youth with flavored circles of sugar and original hardware they dug out of the attic, they seem unwilling or unable to set the image to the correct aspect ratio.


And while their over-consumption of overly-sweet cereal has measurable side-effects that include but are not limited to getting way too excited over World 1-1 of Super Mario Brothers, this couple is certainly experienced advanced negative effects. Because they don’t seem to realize they’re playing the title screen.

Too busy eating cereal to press start.

I don’t get it. Were the producers unable to find anyone competent enough to play a few seconds of Super Mario Brothers? And, okay, if you really have to fake it by showing the demo mode for whatever reason, it runs long enough to have completely avoided making it obvious. 

I understand the game is not the real focus of the commercial, although there is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it plug for Nintendo’s eShop hiding in plain sight. But, c’mon, if you’re trying to sell to a demographic, a bare minimum of authenticity would be nice.

Yeah, yeah, YEAAHHH!

But of course, know how to be authentic. For if you don’t, you end up sounding a fool. For proof, I present to you the Sony PSP…

Released in 2004 in Japan and 2005 in the US, Sony’s Playstation Portable – or PSP for short – was poised to loosen Nintendo’s tight grip on the handheld market. It’s just a shame they were absolutely terrible at marketing the thing.

First they tried raising awareness of the powerful portable by defacing the walls of seven major U.S. cities. Hoping this stunt would reach the hip, urban dwellers, it was instead met with derision from that very group, able to see through the corporation’s phony pandering. And even though the graffiti was done by a professional with permission from property owners, they were eventually slapped with a cease-and-desist from the city of Philadelphia.

Also ill-advised was the placement of their “Take a Running Jump” poster ad in England’s Manchester Picadilly railway station as it was the last thing you’d want someone suicidal to read lest they heed that advice in the worst way possible. It was quickly removed when someone with the teeniest bit of common sense pointed this out.

But, really, please don’t.

And who can forget the infamous billboards announcing the release of the PSP in ceramic white by depicting what can easily be seen as racially insensitive. While those ads were limited to the Netherlands, the internet helped that controversy spread across the globe.

But despite all those missteps, the PSP still had its supporters. Fans even took to putting up blogs, extolling the virtues of the portable to whomever pointed a browser their way. One example was alliwantforxmasisapsp.com, created and run by two individuals whom I thought were tweens but, shockingly, old enough to know better, named Charlie and Jeremy.

Charlie, a proud PSP owner, was hoping to convince his friend Jeremy’s parents to get him one for Christmas by dropping some (spelled S-U-M, natch) unsubtle suggestions throughout the blog. Because if there’s anything working adults respond well to, it’s poorly written, misspelled nonsense.

Every word as written by these “old enough to pay for a PSP on their own” gentlemen with a strong disdain for spellcheck was an unabashed love letter to Sony’s handheld. That alone was discomforting. But then, for the chilliest of all douches, they recruited Cousin Pete…

A lot of visitors noticed quite a few things off about the blog, especially how the whole site seemed to adhere to some unwritten guidelines. Sure, these young bloggers had a devil-may-care attitude towards the basic rules of writing, but the rest of the site was competently designed. Compared to their peers’ MySpace pages of the day, many of which would make your browser scream in agony, it was practically flawless. Also, they seemed to be speaking in a way most people over the age of 40 assumed younger people spoke, minus anything offensive. 

Obviously, the internet wasn’t buying it. That’s when the web detectives did literally two minutes of work. A quick search of the doman showed it was registered to Sony’s advertising company, Zipatoni. The sock-puppets continued denying the ruse, despite overwhelming evidence, until they finally fessed-up by apologizing in a way that sounds not like a company owning up to a mistake but, rather, a crazy person talking craziness. The blog was taken down a short time later.

How to suck at apologizing.

Sony’s attempt at going viral to sell PSP’s ended up backfiring horrendously. Consumers, it turns out, don’t like being played for fools. And when Sony wasn’t being mocked mercilessly, watchdog organizations like the Consumerist and Adweek, as well as the Federal Trade Commission, debated the ethics of advertising without transparency

Meanwhile, the Playstation Portable, while not an outright failure, still did little to dethrone Nintendo and their DS. It’s hard to say if the PSP would have done better had Sony opted for traditional marketing – the type that promotes the features and software selection, instead of attaching their brand to a couple of obnoxious personalities with their two-bit amateur subway rapper in tow.

But don’t shed too many tears for Sony. They still seem to be doing quite well for themselves.

And while this is just about the end of the article, it doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty more examples of terrible video game marketing. We can probably dedicate an entire article to Acclaim’s wacky promotional efforts towards the end of its existence. But I figure we can end things here with a fun, summer time video game commercial to wash the bad taste of Froot Loops, amateur rapping and loose graphics out of your mouth. Enjoy.