NINTENDO’S GameBoy Commercial Ads That Are Bold And Controversial

Oh, the nostalgia of the Nintendo Gameboy! Just a mention is enough to spark bright-eyed enthusiasm or a nostalgic sigh among those who grew up in its era. The games themselves were timeless; from The Legend of Zelda to Pokémon, to Super Mario Land, the hits are classic. However, the gaming experience was only part of the fascination. The advertisements for the Gameboy throughout the late ’80s and ’90s were nothing short of audacious, straying far from the conventional and, by contemporary standards, hailing from a wildly different universe.

A Bold Advertising Epoch

This golden age of advertising was marked by a fearless approach to graphic design. While yes, there were popular styles, it was a time rich in experimentation. Graphic design teams were just beginning to explore the possibilities of cutting-edge digital software, and Nintendo went all out. They employed stark lines, vivid colors, and audacious concepts to demand the world’s gaze, and indeed, our gaze was captured.

Nintendo targeted its marketing campaigns at males aged 12 to 18 – a demographic notorious in the decade for its fixation with punk rock, grunge, and general non-conformity. Nintendo embraced these themes in its adverts, sometimes pushing the envelope to what some would label as nearly contentious even for the ’90s sensibilities. Those same campaigns might incite outrage if released in the modern day.

From Edgy to Provocative

In one notorious advertisement from the era, a teen boy is portrayed passionately engaged with his Gameboy, with the peculiar addition of a ferret nosing its way down his trousers. The creative logic behind such an ad is mystifying. But the envelope-pushing didn’t stop there.

A different ad presented the viewer with a close-up of men’s denim-clad rear ends, the outline of a Gameboy protruding from a back pocket. Paired with the suggestive phrase, “Keep it in your pants,” it’s an ad that likely wouldn’t be received well today.

What gave rise to this bold attitude?

Rebellion Becomes the New Cool

The trend towards a grungier aesthetic in graphic design was already underway, significantly influenced by David Carson’s work. Carson was known for a rebellious take on design, characterized by jumbled visuals and jarring typefaces. His design philosophy scored him major clients and greatly influenced the decade’s aesthetics. Although Nintendo’s adverts might not have reached the same level of disorder, they definitely adopted a similarly irreverent, rebellion-is-the-new-cool stance.

One of Nintendo’s most memorable advertising crusades from the ’90s was the Play It Loud! series by marketing firm Leo Burnett Worldwide. The campaign broke away from patronizing children with a childish tone, instead addressing teens in their own language. It featured rock music and the period’s vernacular. For example, a Play It Loud! poster showed a chaotic assembly of game screenshots overlaid with bombastic phrases like Shoot ‘Em Up!, Brain Numbing Power!, Feel the Pain!, and Obviously Cool Stuff.


Nintendo’s Evolution

As the new millennium approached, the extremeness that characterized Nintendo’s old ad campaigns began to mellow out. With their audience maturing into adulthood, Nintendo’s campaigns shifted towards broader, more introspective themes, evident in their 2002 Who Are You? initiative that encouraged gamers to see themselves in the characters, games, and systems they engaged with.

While the Gameboy ads of the ‘90s now exist only as echoes of a bygone era, the boldness of those campaigns continues to resonate. They didn’t just border on controversy; they delved into it. In today’s world of polished, unobjectionable advertising, the rawness of Nintendo’s ‘90s era ads is almost missed. That being said, companies looking to draw inspiration from Nintendo’s playbook of that time would be wise to tread carefully in this landscape of modern media sensibilities.

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