’80s and ’90s Game Advertising, Sponsored by Wind Tunnels Inc

The late ’80s through to early ’90s was a confusing time for everyone involved. The Soviets didn’t know if they were coming or going, baseball caps were worn backwards on sunny days, and chequered shirts were not restricted to lumberjacks. It was especially confusing for out-of-touch advertising executives trying to sell videogames to adolescents. Spare a thought for those clueless geezers of old. Out of touch and oblivious, they were lucky if they had even a vague idea of what adolescents were, let alone what they were interested in, what with their ‘ghetto-boxes’ playing their ‘hippity-hop’, and their ‘Ruboid Cubes’. The execs were quite content at designing adverts in order to sell sports cars and Filofaxes to waterfront yuppies when all of a sudden they were expected to sell brick-shaped television-controlling bleep-bloop doodads to teenagers whose only source of disposable income was from their parents.

It was a challenge that could only be overcome by conducting in-depth market research to find out just what made this emergent demographic tick, and then utilising this data to produce an advertising campaign that would ensure success for clients and the commission-based advertising agency. So after watching Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure five times, the execs made sure to list things like ‘skateboards’, ‘videogames’, and ‘guitars’ under a column titled ‘Gnarly’, while things like ‘homework’, ‘nerds’, and ‘adults’ went under the ‘Bogus’ column. As you can imagine, the resulting videogame ads were, for the most part, awful.I bring to you, through much toil and personal torment, some examples of those ads that missed the mark.

I begin with an ad for The Legend of Zelda, starring blonde George McFly, and Buzz from Home Alone. In this double-denim-flavoured nightmare, George and Buzz become so overwhelmed by the graphical prowess of the Nintendo Entertainment System that they lose most of their motor skills and start rapping (It’s the Legend of Zelda and it’s really rad/Those creatures from Ganon are pretty bad/Octoroks, Tektites and Leevers too/But with your help our hero pulls through). Well, ‘rapping’ in a very basic sense; the words rhyme and keep to a rhythm. But it’s similar to chewing on mint leaves, taking a slurp of rum, following it up with a glug of Coke, swishing it around like mouthwash, and calling it a Cuba Libre.  As hip-hop was in its infancy and was fast becoming the next big thing in music at this point, it was a widely held belief among advertisers that the only way to make your ad a success was to include a rap. It didn’t matter what you were selling, if you had a rap, your sales were guaranteed to increase by 103%. Even if the thing you were selling was a videogame about a sword-and-shield-wielding hero on a quest to save a princess from an evil pig-monster and should never have a rap anywhere in its advertising ever, you make damned sure to shoehorn a rap in there or you might as well quit your advertising job and not let the door hit you on the way out.

If you were able to watch the ad all the way through, you may have noticed a disembodied voice at the end saying “Nintendo Entertainment System. Your parents help you hook it up. The Legend of Zelda sold separately.” That was not a mistake on my part; I can grammar good with the best of them. The voice-over really said: “Your parents help you hook it up.” What does that even mean? Hook it up with what? Drugs? Is the voice in the TV urging you and your parents to go score drugs for your NES? It could mean a multitude of things, some more plausible than others, but it’s much more likely that the copywriter for this ad had the feeblest of grasps on slang, and by misusing it, succeeded in confusing everyone.

We were wrong all these years. The purpose of a wireless controller isn’t for the convenience of not having to untangle miles of cable. It was to let us perform killer backflips (also found in the ‘Gnarly’ column under the subheading ‘Kung-Fu moves’). That ad is thirty seconds long and I count two backflips. That is two more than I’ve done in my entire life. This ad highlights two important rules in late-80s and early-90s videogame advertising. The first rule is that if someone is using wireless technology, you must edit in some sweet lasers and pew-pew sounds, and, secondly, if you are trying to show off how impressive the sound and graphics are, the person in your ad must look like they are in a wind tunnel. A wireless controller will also help you to survive if you ever find yourself playing a NES in a wind tunnel while clinging to the back of a couch. And look at everything that’s referenced here: Wrestlemania with Hulk Hogan and André the Giant, Airwolf, and a smoke machine? The only way this ad could have been more ’80s is if Mötley Crüe showed up and started taking Quaaludes in that kid’s bedroom.

In an advert inspired by Guantanamo Bay, a ‘cool’ teenager is interrogated in his own living room by an angry man inside a TV. “You still don’t have a Sega CD?” he asks “What are you waiting for? Nintendo to make one?” to which consumers replied “If this is the best Sega can offer and you’re giving me the option to wait, angry man in the television, then yes. I would rather wait, please.” He then asks the kid if he’s seen any of the games, which is met with a sheepish shake of the head. Wrong answer. The kid begins to be electrocuted by his own sofa and starts screaming while being subjected to the horror of a fast-cut rogue’s gallery of the worst games the Sega CD has to offer – which is all of them. In a cruel twist, it turns out the teenager’s living room is actually a giant wind tunnel, proving once and for all that the wind tunnel scourge was more widespread than originally believed. The ‘blustery day’ setting increased to ‘hurricane speed’, and crushed the kid against the back wall along with his pet cat. With his body and mind broken, a single word escapes his now putty-like mouth-hole as a piercing shriek, and it is the name of his tormentor: “Sega.”

Did the ads even help the sales in any way? I doubt it. But I also don’t think they hindered sales either. Teenagers had access to videogame magazines which left them better informed than what television advertising could do. Take The Legend of Zelda, for example. This was a revolutionary game on a ground-breaking console and any kid worth their salt would have been clamouring to get their peanut butter-stained mitts on both, stupid adverts or not. The Sega CD was an expensive – and broken – toilet of a console, and no amount of wind tunnels stuffed with cool dudes was going to change that. I don’t think Acclaim’s wireless controller saw any benefit from their ads either, because if it did, we wouldn’t be swimming in cables until the mid-2000s. Although, some research did uncover that Acclaim’s wireless controller was ‘ass’. If you didn’t use a spirit level to ensure the controller was perfectly in line with the IR receiver (which also had to be within five feet of the controller), the whole thing would disconnect. So there’s that.

At the time, advertisers drew an assumption that teenagers existed as a single entity; an exaggeration of how teenagers looked, behaved, and spoke, and it couldn’t have been further from reality. It was easier to work with a caricature of what they thought teenagers were than actually knowing what teenagers were. So, advertisers tried to reach out to a fabricated entity by talking to it in its own equally fabricated language; one scattered with words like ‘tubular’ and ‘rad’ – slang that sounded just as dated then as it does now. The message behind these adverts was simple: Look at this videogame. This person playing this video game is a ‘cool dude’, video games are also cool, therefore, if you buy this game, you can be cool too! To paraphrase Inigo Montoya, advertisers keep using this word ‘cool’. But I do not think it means what they think it means.

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One Comment

  1. Chris Chris says:

    Ha. Amazing stuff. Great article Eddie, give me a chuckle!

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