Last month’s next-gen launch from Sony and Microsoft was undoubtedly the biggest and most eagerly anticipated in recent memory. With stock disappearing from shelves in mere minutes — crashing major retail websites across the UK — it’s fair to say that demand for the new PlayStation and Xbox surpassed expectations right across the board.
But success like that doesn’t happen overnight. It takes years to cultivate that kind of brand loyalty, decades even. And although both sides have been relatively quiet this time around, their previous marketing efforts have been nothing short of legendary.
Sure, a more in-depth comparison is definitely warranted for a future feature. But for now, we thought we’d look back at some of the most memorable ads PlayStation and Xbox have delivered through the years.
When Sony released the original PlayStation back in the 90s, it completely changed the way people thought about the video games industry. No longer a niche market, confined to the outskirts of popular culture, gaming exploded onto the mainstream, resulting in 102 million unit-sales for Sony’s new machine. Moreover, it spawned a plethora of recognisable franchises, introducing the world to mainstay icons like Crash Bandicoot, Lara Croft and Solid Snake.
In 1999, half a decade after the console was first launched, Sony ran the commercial ‘Double Life’. Less about the actual games, Double Life was more a declaration that gaming as a pastime had firmly embedded itself into modern culture.
Whereas previous commercials in the video games industry were typically product-focused, Double Life put the people — gamers — at the heart of its message. It spoke to audiences not as consumers but as part of something much bigger; the nameless millions sharing a life of dubious virtue between day jobs.
The third instalment of Xbox’s flagship series, Halo, had a lot to live up to. Not only was it the closing chapter of a much-beloved trilogy, it was also proclaimed to be the “killer app” for Microsoft’s console at the time. If it was everything gamers hoped it would be, then surely Microsoft and Xbox would take the console war crown.
‘Believe’, then, is something of a flying banner on all fronts. We won’t bore you with the nuances of interplanetary conflict going on in the background here, but just let it be known that the stakes in Halo 3 are high, with all life in the known galaxy hanging in the balance. What ran was a series of stirring promos set against themes of war, sacrifice and heroism.
In addition to the “Museum of Humanity” shorts, which depicted veterans of a fictional future war, serving as a way to contextualise in-game events and align them with our own, Believe also went on to feature the same 1,200 square foot diorama (as seen in the museum) in its own dedicated spot.
This interconnectivity between campaign ads wasn’t only a nice touch, narratively speaking, it also heightened the sense of scale and anticipation surrounding the game’s release. This wasn’t just another video game, this was a defining moment in video game history.
Long before businesses and brands began weaving messages about mental health into their marketing, Sony gave us ‘Mental Wealth’. The promo is perhaps best known its creepy, digitally distorted subject speaking directly to the camera, but that would be overlooking the real meaning.
Sony and PlayStation certainly have a history of visually and tonally disturbing ads, from a surreal collaboration with Twin Peaks creator David Lynch (The Third Place) to that seriously weird commercial with the crying doll (don’t even Google it). Still, Mental Wealth is the one that sticks out in people’s minds. And that’s the whole point. No longer about what mankind can achieve out there, on our behalf, human endeavour is measured in experiences in the mind — “up here and in our own time”.
When Microsoft launched the Xbox 360 in the mid-2000s, online gaming was a relatively new concept. Sure, you could already do it on a PC, but it wasn’t exactly mainstream. The Xbox 360 changed all that, finally giving console gamers the chance to play with / against anybody, anywhere.
Still, it was probably a tough sell at the time. And just as Sony had changed perceptions of the video games industry, Microsoft did the same for online competitive play. ‘Standoff’ is the ad that got people’s attention.
Lifted almost beat for beat out of that one episode of Spaced, Standoff captures everything joyful, anarchic and uniquely tribal about playing video games with other people — whether they’re sitting right beside you on the sofa or somewhere on the other side of the world.
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