Analysis Playstation: Games for all fingers and thumbs

Playstation has picked up the Cannes Advertiser of the Year Award. Peter York goes into the archives of TBWA/London to examine the work that defined the brand


S.A.P.S. 1995

This is the European launch commercial for Sony PlayStation, a product which utterly changed the market it entered. But first you have to think back to early computer games. Then to Sega and Nintendo. And so you're thinking of sad, spotty early teen boys who don't get out. PlayStation was launched to change all that; to make gaming decidedly more sophisticated and older. So of course it had to start with a spoofy warning from a moral guardian, the CIA-dressed nerd from SAPs, the Society Against PlayStation with the line "never underestimate the power of PlayStation". This commercial - smart and funny enough as it is - doesn't have the power of what followed.

Shapes 1997

They're trying to widen PlayStation's appeal here. If you loved 'Damien', 'Omen II' or 'Poltergeist' or any of that 70s/80s breed of nonsense horror then you'll recognise the core elements of this commercial: strange signs - the shapes on the PlayStation console control pad; a square, circle, triangle and cross - and odd things happening all over the world. In a schoolroom, a Greek restaurant, a Hong Kong taxi and an Australian kitchen, objects revolt. It ends on the PlayStation console and its glowing cabbalist symbols. And this turbulent underworld was just a sigh away in your living room. There's a real PlayStation rhythm developing here.

Double-life 1998

And now they've got it. This wonderfully pretentious commercial illustrates the double life of a wide range of PlayStation users from strange children to old men. It's London, black and white and strongly Malcolm Maclaren influenced (actually directed by Frank Budgen). And it's 'transgressive', a bit of academic/social worker speak that'd just started to surface in the clever end of adland. Here are ordinary Londoners saying they're thieves and murderers, living a life of dubious virtue, missed heartbeats and adrenalin. The language is a pastiche of a certain kind 18th and 19th century cult confessional book (Opium Eaters etc.) and very literate. Completely compelling.

Mental Wealth 1999

Fi-Fi the Cyber Pixie is a brilliant bit of computer re-creation somewhere between Kate Moss and the Mekon whom you want to accept as a natural freak. She's saying clever gnomic modern things in a very Scottish accent. "Land on your own moon" ("mune"), she says. "Forget progress by proxy. It's no longer what they can achieve out there on your behalf, but what we can experience up here, in our own time. It's called Mental Wealth." Big thoughts for little games. Then she giggled at her own pretentiousness. God knows how they made this utterly convincing spacegirl. PlayStation is clearly targeted at smart, clever, surprising Scottish people. Tomorrow's Muriel Greys.

Nipple 1999

This press campaign was designed to extend the currency of the PlayStation symbolism. It ran in the 'style press' - 'Dazed and Confused', 'ID', 'Sleaze Nation', 'Jockey Slut', etc. - aimed at the world's ponciest Milan and Japan twenty-somethings. The big idea is that darling polo-necked, early Shoreditch youth is strangely excited by the power of PlayStation. This attractive young couple have wildly tumescent nipples displaying the symbols on the controller. But that's all; there's no branding in this ad' - the target market is expected to work its intellectual passage into PlayStation country.

Blood 1999

Here's a deeply enigmatic ten-second commercial. It follows a launch poster for the theme 'In your blood', another PlayStation campaign in the style press. It's a round, red microscope photograph of an armful of blood, which churns around to alarming art film background sound effects. It's that worrying video-installation kind of sound. As you look the corpuscles in the blood photograph resolve themselves into the PlayStation symbols again. The references here are bordering on the sacreligious (at this point PlayStation was being described as the fastest growing religion in Europe). No Logo and no other branding - it's just insidious.

The Third Place 2000

If you thought 'The Third Place' was Starbucks, here comes PlayStation ("one life for myself and one for my dreams"). It's a touch of the David Lynch's - he really did direct it - a touch of the noirs, a touch of 1940 movie surrealism, and a touch of unconscious - it's all there. There are heads flying off, a doppelganger and billowing steam. There's a disembodied arm, a bandage-wrapped mummy, an infinite horizon corridor and a duck that says "The third place". It's all there to launch PlayStation Two. So who wants to come into the back room for something a bit stronger now?

Bambi 2001

More David Lynch. It's glorious 1960s saturated colour, a travelogue music track, an ironic picture-postcard effect. There's high summer in gold and green as a baby deer noses its way through the vegetation to the roadside somewhere nice. All intercut, in the corniest way possible, with an approaching battered pick-up with a battered driver. When they collide the truck's bonnet crumples and the rear wheels kick up just as if it'd met a concrete wall. And Bambi walks on unharmed. That's what happens in the 'Third Place', where they've got different rules. This was the first of three ads that defined different kinds of 'Third Places'.

Overboard 2001

The idea here is that if you're a regular PlayStation 'Third Place' visitor, it'll show in your real world actions; you'll do silly things with every expectation of impunity. So there's a shark-fishing boat - an old one - with one chancer at the wheel and the other dishing out scoops of shark bait into the water where it leaves a bloody trail, with ominous dark shapes in it. The sensible skipper cuts the engine and goes for some large rods. The scooper, skinny and crazed-looking, strips to his trunks and dives into the scarlet water. With global warming, this commercial probably needs a "don't do this at home" notice even in Grimsby now.

Wolfman 2003

I think most of the PlayStation advertising was written by someone who liked Decadents. The theme here, once again, is exploring your own wilder shores. The ideas are very 19th century and literate, but rendered in a smart new faux-naïve animation style. So an astronomer character imagines being a werewolf. And then he's off, on a rocket smashing through deep space, morphing as he goes, banging into planets, shouting out crazy stuff. "How fantastic and different my life would be to go beyond human, to be a man-dog, a hairy person. Look at me I am teeth; I am fur; I am dribble. I am Wolfman."

Mad and marvellous.

Fun, anyone? 2003

In 2003 the PlayStation advertising changed. The idea was to bridge from the clever-dicks and early adopters by suggesting that gaming was actually fun and social - the earlier clever stuff might have implied it was a solitary pursuit.

By 2003 Sony wanted the brand to roll out, go mass, become a medium. So a new broader range of games targeted at a wider market had a new tagline "Fun, anyone?" The campaign was based around four different animation treatments using cheerful black and white line drawings - a dancing robot, a talking bird, a series of come-on-ins. And absolutely nothing grim or studenty. Start dark, end Lite.

Life on PlayStation 2004

The PlayStation here is a sort of spoof African wildlife reserve in a parallel universe where people do animal things described by a polite educated African voice-over. There are three versions, all involving lots of extras in satisfyingly expensive locations. One, "Athletes" has athletes playing the endangered herbivores (deer? zebra?) while the predatory ventriloquists watch from the bushes. Eventually they get an athlete down. Another treatment has a herd of golfers trying to cross a river while wicked porn stars stalk them, and then have their tooth-and-claw way with the strays. I know it all sounds a bit laboured, a bit of an Eddie Izzard routine, but it's nice to look at.

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