Feature: The Third Place - A Brief History of PlayStation Hardware Marketing
Posted by Sammy Barker
It only does everything
Sony won the PS2 era without even breaking a sweat, leaving its competitors in the dust as it went on to move over 155 million units across the globe. Surprisingly, the success of its second console left it vulnerable, as it entered the PlayStation 3 era riding a tidal wave of arrogance. Not only was its next generation console significantly more expensive than both of its competitor’s – who could forget the famous $599 US dollars E3 reveal from then SCEA president Kaz Hirai? – but it had a lot to prove against the innovation of the Wii and the popularity of the Xbox 360. Already a year behind Microsoft’s console, the platform holder released a poignant spot in Canada declaring that the “wait is over”. The commercial effectively captured the childlike feel of sleeplessness, but despite the company’s candid admission that it was behind the curve, it followed up the video with one of the most disastrous advertisements in the brand’s entire history. Broadcast to a viewership of 16 million baseball fans shortly before the PS3’s North American launch, the release of the ‘Baby’ promo is often widely acknowledged as the moment that the Japanese giant lost its grip on the gaming market. Despite being thematically similar to some of the spots that the firm had used before, it completely missed the mark, and turned the console into a laughing stock.
Unfortunately, this was just the start. Employing the tagline ‘Play B3yond’ – which interestingly used the same red letter wordplay as its ‘ENOS’ ads from the PSone launch – the company released several similarly atrocious spots, each dedicated to highlighting some of the system’s key features. One showed the new SIXAXIS controller guiding a dozen eggs, while another focused on the vaunted CELL processor’s supercharged computational power. It even attempted to transcribe the white room format to some its key exclusives, with one Lair ad showing a dragon breaking into the sterile quarters and filling it with fire. Things were not much better in Europe either, with the platform holder opting to launch its heavily delayed console with a seedy movie-esque trailer dubbed ‘This Is Living’. Depicting the lives of several crazed hotel goers, the pretentious campaign was produced by the same London-based outfit that worked on ‘Double Life’ and ‘Mountain’, but failed to have anywhere near the same impact. Despite the inclusion of a website with specific character sketches and even a five minute short film, the PS3 lost significant ground on both the Wii and the Xbox 360 – a trait that was accelerated by the console’s high price point, poor software lineup, and completely out-of-touch marketing.
Something had to change, and Sony swiftly started to adapt its messaging. In late 2007, the platform holder dropped the price of its flagship format, and completely overhauled its marketing approach. The ‘Play B3yond’ tagline remained in North America, but rather than persist with the bizarre advertisements that had accompanied the console’s launch, the manufacturer instead switched to something a little more straightforward. The resulting ‘Universe of Entertainment’ commercial was a high-energy clip centring on the strengths of the format and its growing library of exclusive software. Then marketing vice president Peter Dille explained on the newly launched PlayStation Blog that the manufacturer was looking for something with a little more impact. “The games are here, and we wanted to make the news loud and clear,” he said, perhaps in a nod to the ‘PS3 has no games’ meme that was perpetuating at the time. The spot certainly did a good job of showcasing the system’s lineup, with big exclusives like Ratchet & Clank: Tools of Destruction and Uncharted: Drake's Fortune all putting in an appearance. Most importantly, the ad represented a turning point for the Japanese giant’s gaming brand, as it embraced the enormous task of getting its latest console back on track.
While sales did improve – with big titles such as Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots helping out – the manufacturer was forced to wait until 2009 before it was able to gain any real momentum. The steady introduction of firmware updates since the system’s launch had completely overhauled the quality of the PlayStation Network, and the strength of Sony’s colossal Worldwide Studios group was beginning to flex its muscle. As such, to coincide with the release of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves – which would go on to win numerous Game of the Year awards – the firm decided to completely overhaul its image. It ditched the Spider-Man font that had adorned the console since its inception, and introduced a slimmer, lighter, and less expensive hardware model in the process. The firm opted to tie this change into a new marketing initiative in North America revolving around fake executive Kevin Butler. Previously, the character had been used to promote MLB 09 The Show, but the spectacular response to the first wave of the ‘It Only Does Everything’ commercials prompted the platform holder to employ the eccentric executive for a good couple of years. He even made an appearance during the company’s E3 2010 press conference, delivering a rousing speech in which he championed gamers. Unfortunately, things ended badly for actor Jerry Lambert, as he was sued for promoting a competing gaming product during a Bridgestone tyre commercial. Nevertheless, the firm continued its gamer-centric approach late into the PS3’s life, with its slick ‘Michael’ commercial spotlighting key characters from the gaming universe.
Sony’s taken us on a rollercoaster ride of excellent, atrocious, and occasionally downright baffling advertisements over the years. Some of the more timeless spots like ‘Double Life’ will retain their place in marketing text books for decades to come, while less successful promos such as the PS3’s infamous ‘Baby’ commercial will forever be remembered as a part of the period where the Japanese giant lost its way. Despite these enormous gulfs in quality, though, they all take us to the moment that we currently occupy: the eve of the PS4’s launch. And if there’s one thing that this journey has taught us, it’s that you should never, ever underestimate the power of PlayStation.