Advertising evokes a negative response in the minds of many., but it has an important role in the gaming industry. Although they can be annoying, intrusive, and manipulative, ads also raise awareness of products (or services) and ultimately generate sales. Singling out the best ads is a difficult task, since different ads have different goals. Some ads are informative, others are funny, and some are intentionally shocking. It's important to understand that ads are tailor-made for specific audiences, however. Successful ad campaigns will appeal to the sensibilities of this target audience. If you're trying to sell a product to a middle-aged business executive, you'll likely take a different approach than if you were trying to sell a game directly to a teenage girl. On that note, I will be try to be mindful of who the ads are intended for. Keep in mind that this list acknowledges print ads rather than television commercials, trailers, or promotional campaigns. Click the images for a full preview!
Hey, bear tracks.
Super Mario 64 inspired countless imitators in the 1990s, but Banjo-Kazooie was no ordinary 3D platformer. The game focused on a bear named Banjo and a bird named Kazooie who embarked on an enormous adventure together. Players had to use the abilities of both of these characters in order to advance, and the ads put a heavy emphasis on their unusual partnership. By conflating bird tracks with bear tracks, the ad highlights the absurdity of the game and underscores its central teamwork gimmick. The ad might be perceived as an example of incongruous juxtaposition at first, but it's an accurate reflection of the game.
Psy-Crow killed his parents.
The ads on this list were not published in a vacuum. You could often find in-depth articles about games in the very magazines that they were being advertised in. Ads that inundated readers with information often felt redundant or unnecessary, but it was impossible to ignore the ads for Earthworm Jim. Magazine layouts were explosions of color in the '90s, so the roughly-sketched Earthworm Jim ad jumped out from the pages. The previews were overwhelmingly positive, so the publishers knew that there was no need for a heavy-handed sales pitch. They had so much confidence in their product that they ran an ad that was probably drawn on a cocktail napkin.
Due this fall.
The moment where the xenomorph bursts out of Kane's chest is one of the most iconic moments in cinema history. Almost everyone is familiar with the scene, and that's what makes the ad for Alien: Resurrection so effective. The ad shows an ultrasound image of an unborn xenomorph and conflates the game's launch date with a pregnancy due date. Since everyone is woefully familiar with how xenomorphs are actually born, the innocuous image of an ultrasound likely triggers images of violence and horror. The birth of a child can be scary in its own right, but kids ruin your life in a different way than alien xenomorphs do.
Watch dad become a kid...
Some people look down on gaming and see it as a sign of immaturity. This stigma has existed since the inception of the medium, and it's one of the biggest challenges the industry faces when they market their games. There are different ways to deal with the criticism, but Atari decided to embrace it with the Father's Day ad template that was made for vendors. One of the greatest things about video games is how they can make anyone feel like a kid again. Atari's ad template acknowledges that video games are childish, but it presents this as a positive thing rather than something they should be ashamed of. All in all, it's a great way to reach an older audience.
Prepare for this!
Video game violence was a hot-button issue in 1993, and Mortal Kombat was at the center of the controversy. The hype surrounding the game's home release was incredible, so Interplay decided to go along for the ride. To promote Clayfighter, Interplay basically took Mortal Kombat's memorable "Prepare Yourself" ad and edited the logo, characters, and tag line. It was all done in jest, of course, and I'd liken the ad to a Weird Al song. Although it was mostly played for laughs, the ad was successful in painting Clayfighter as a lighthearted alternative to Mortal Kombat. It was a perfect way to convey the spirit of the game.
Final Fantasy VII
A cigarette and a blindfold
Square's decision to release Final Fantasy VII on the Sony PlayStation rather than the Nintendo 64 marked a radical shift in the industry and effectively killed Nintendo's dominance in the console space. To their credit, Sony promoted the heck out of the game and helped make RPGs more popular in the west. After Nintendo lost one of their biggest third-parties, Sony decided to rub salt in their wounds. The ad for Final Fantasy VII likened the release of the game to a firing squad and implied that Nintendo was about to be executed. The ad also stressed the advantages of the CD format by suggesting that the game would cost $1200 if it was available on a cartridge. Ether!
Nintendo dominated the console market in the 1980s, but Sega decided to challenge them head-on when the Genesis was released. Their aggressive ad campaign put a heavy emphasis on arcade-like experiences and made it clear that the Genesis had better graphics than the NES. By painting Sega's new machine as a sophisticated alternative to Nintendo's aging console, the "Genesis Does" ad campaign mobilized fanboys on both sides and set the stage for the Console Wars that would define video game marketing for the next decade. It would be easy to write off "Genesis Does What Nintendon't" as a cheesy pun, but the slogan resonated with consumers.
WaveBird Wireless Controller
Nothing comes between a man and his game.
People take wireless controllers for granted, but it took decades for them to become an industry standard. Their importance cannot be overstated, and I maintain that they played a big role in allowing gaming consoles to move out of basements and into living rooms. Unlike most wireless controllers of the era, the WaveBird used radio waves instead of relying on infrared line-of-sight technology. This made it the most reliable wireless controller on the market. The advertisement used evocative imagery to illustrate that the controller could potentially be used in another room, and anyone who saw the ad immediately understood what the controller was capable of.
In case you didn't notice...
Sex has always been used to sell video games. In fact, the flyer for the world's first commercial video game (Computer Space in 1971) featured a woman in a nightgown. In 1996, Sega ran an ad that featured a nude model and a few strategically placed screenshots. The premise was that Saturn games were so amazing that nobody would notice the weirdly-airbrushed woman. Although revisionist history suggests otherwise, the ad resonated with the target audience. EGM even named it the best print ad of the year! Video games will always be marketed to young male audiences, and this audience will always be interested in women. It's disingenuous to suggest otherwise.
The ad for Paper Mario featured a picture of Mario surrounded by dotted lines. This gave readers the opportunity to create their own real-life version of Paper Mario by cutting him out of the magazine! For the uninitiated, the concept of Paper Mario involved paper-thin versions of Nintendo's iconic characters. As such, a flat image of Mario was a perfect facsimile of his in-game model. The ad was a clever way to underscore the game's "paper" gimmick, even if it was nearly identical to the Sega Game Gear ad that ran many years earlier. Some of the best games shamelessly borrow ideas, and this apparently rings true in the advertising world as well.