Close-Up: Live Issue - How ads are helping to win the gaming battle

PlayStation 3 celebrated a successful launch weekend, but did its ad campaign make any difference, James Hamilton asks.

In the avalanche of negative headlines surrounding the European launch of Sony's next-generation PlayStation 3 console, one figure stands out. In its first weekend in the UK, the PS3 shifted 165,000 units. Compare that with Wii's impressive 105,000 and Xbox 360's 71,000 for their respective launch weekends and it appears the press has failed to heed Sony's advice from 1994 and has, indeed, underestimated the power of PlayStation.

While those figures will hearten a manufacturer that has been dogged by problems in getting its new product to market in Europe, there will be no resting on its laurels at Sony. Few in the industry think it will enjoy the runaway success it had with the first and second generations of its console. The £15 billion global games market is far more cluttered than it was 13 years ago when the PlayStation launched, and differentiating the Sony brand from its Nintendo and Microsoft rivals will be key to its success.

The TBWA\London campaign backing the launch is certainly distinct. It's vintage PlayStation advertising, not in its message, but its tone. Under any circumstances other than a troubled launch, it would have generated the kind of publicity the console manufacturer thrives on: incomprehension and mild outrage from Middle England, mixed with knowing nods and wry smiles from those who "get it".

Called "this is living", the campaign focuses on a fictional South American hotel populated by a cast of strange characters, including a former footballer who masturbates over videos of his greatest goals and a former Yugoslavian soldier who may or may not be a war criminal of some description. Online, the "this is living" world is huge. There may - or may not - be a point to the story the characters find themselves wound up in. And that, the TBWA\London head of planning, Tom Morton, says, is the central thrust of the strategy: the console is so powerful, it's almost as if it's a living entity.

"Because the PlayStation 3's artificial intelligence is so strong, it's a box of living entertainment. So the campaign had to be a piece of living entertainment," he says.

Danny Brooke-Taylor, the joint TBWA\London creative director and one of the creatives behind the campaign, continues: "People are seeking their entertainment from a multitude of channels, and the PS3 has to compete against them all. Its ads need to be entertaining and evolving in all those channels.

"The worst thing we could have done was make a television campaign about how 'interaction is fun'. You need to experience it, rather than have someone tell you it's interactive."

At the heart of the campaign is the website. TBWA\London and Naked, the media planning outfit on the campaign, hope it will become a destination for gamers and, like the console and the television advertising, it will evolve with use. It's an ambitious bit of advertising, which treads a fine line between entertaining its audience with a David Lynch-meets-Lost concept (some of the ads feel like trailers for a forthcoming film), and deceiving it into thinking that the hotel and its population might really exist. According to the travel website, it definitely does.

Quite how important advertising is to games console manufacturers is a moot point. Few of the 165,000 buyers over PS3's launch weekend are likely to have based their decision to spend £425 on the ad campaign; the majority will have been hardcore gamers and Sony fans who would have bought it whatever.

"The advertising sets the spirit and defines the context of the console," a former TBWA\London executive who worked on the PS2 launch, says. "It's important in positioning consoles to the casual gamer. At the moment, the tone around Nintendo's Wii is very attractive to non-gamers like me," he says.

Rob Lowe, the Nintendo UK product manager for Wii, echoes this sentiment. With its DS and Wii products, Nintendo has actively targeted a market which would not traditionally play computer games.

"We want to take video gaming out of its core audience. We've seen the future of the gaming industry as moving away from the hardcore gamer. It's the only way of growing the market," Lowe says.

Wii's advertising and media strategy reflects this aim. Media buying has moved towards more mainstream programming - you're more likely to see a Wii ad during a Coronation Street ad break on ITV than in an edgy late-night show on the Sci Fi channel. All backed by a noisy strategy by Cake.

And the advertising itself is gentler and more inclusive. The TV spots are simple, featuring people of all ages and both genders playing the games. "We feel the products sell themselves," Lowe says. "When you show people playing the product, the natural reaction you get from them is enough."

Brooke-Taylor agrees, although PlayStation's new campaign is far edgier and less likely to appeal to housewives than Wii's "play-tennis-like-Federer" approach.

"Sony refers to the PlayStation 3 as an entertainment supercomputer. It's never seen it as simply the next console on the production line; it's an entry into a broader area of interactive entertainment, and the launch had to reflect that," he says.

So where does Xbox fit into this mix? From a casual observer's point of view, Microsoft's approach to marketing its console to beat all consoles has been curiously subdued considering the 18-month head start it has had on its closest rival, Sony.

The Xbox strategy is a global one; its "jump in" line focuses on the console's online gaming experience. Its highest-profile ads are similar in tone to the Cannes Grand Prix-winning "mountain" spot for PS2 (they shared the same director in Frank Budgen).

"Microsoft is not a marketing-led company, it's very sales and manufacturing led and just doesn't invest in advertising," a source close to the Xbox business says. This approach is borne out by Xbox's comparatively small spend in the UK of £6.7 million - around a third of what Sony will spend on the UK launch of the PS3.

While Xbox remains the gamers' choice (visit any gaming forum and you'll be dazzled by the gigahertz statistics being reeled off), it might struggle in the battle for the space below the television in Europe. The global strategy is created in the US, where gamers tend to be a nerdier bunch. "In Europe, people view gaming more as entertainment," Morton says.

And while Microsoft is still in the process of proving its gaming credentials, PlayStation merely needs to refine and expand its and Nintendo is quietly winning new converts to the pastime. Unlike the national press, none of the three players is underestimating the ambition of any of its rivals.


Launched: 8 December 2006
Price: £179rrp
Creative agency: Leo Burnett
Digital agency: BD Networks
Media agency: Mediaedge:cia
Strategy: Position Wii as a console for non-hardcore gamers

The advertising: Real gamers playing real games is how Nintendo bills the launch campaign for Wii. Players were filmed over four days to give a sense of the infectious fun of playing on the console. The television push was backed with a £1 million digital campaign from BD Networks - reputedly the largest for any games manufacturer

The verdict: Nintendo has replicated the success it enjoyed with its DS handheld device and has let the product do the talking

Launch weekend sales: 105,000

PlayStation 3
Launched: 23 March 2007
Price: £425
Creative agency: TBWA\London
Digital agency: Agency Republic
Media agency: Naked Communications
Strategy: "This is living" positions the console as the ultimate
interactive entertainment platform

The advertising: The campaign "invites an audience of entertainment enthusiasts into a multi-character drama," Sony says. The advertising centres on a mythical hotel where viewers can spy on an eccentric cast of former gameshow hosts and wannabe superstarlets

The verdict: It's a little early to say, since most of the current sales are to hardened PlayStation fans. But questions are already being asked over how many non-traditional computer gamers the edgy campaign will appeal to

Launch weekend sales: 165,000

Xbox 360
Launched: 2 December 2005
Price: £209 - £279
Creative agency: McCann Erickson
Digital agency: AKQA
Media agency: Universal McCann
Strategy: "Jump in" focuses on the console's online gaming capabilities

The advertising: A range of game-specific ads backed with the occasional brand advertising, most of which originates in the US. Ambient and experiental advertising created at a local level. A tie-up with Metro for the launch of the Gears of War title featured blood seeping through the pages of the freesheet

The verdict: Too games- and gamer-centric. Microsoft needs to soften its stance on marketing and advertising if it is to crack the less hardcore European gaming market

Launch weekend sales: 71,000.