The great console wars of the early ’90s were fought on TV. Nintendo hyped its Super NES with promises of playing with “super power” and cameos from a nascent Paul Rudd, while Sega filled the airwaves with the kind of kinetic snark that was so ubiquitous during the decade. (Its advertisements etched the combative slogan “Genesis does what Nintendon’t” into the brains of children everywhere.) That was the story in the United States, at least. Over in the U.K., where the Genesis was known as the Mega Drive, Sega branched out even further from its competition with a series of ambitious, outlandish ads that put its brash American campaign to shame.
In a recent retrospective on Eurogamer, Damien McFerran revisited Sega’s British commercials and tracked down several of the key figures behind their creation. Sega Europe’s CEO, Nick Alexander, explained that, in stereotypically rebellious fashion, the whole point was to stand out from Nintendo’s family-friendly image and prove playing on Sega was “about being cool, and, above all else, not being like your parents.” The Super NES debuted in Europe in 1992, and as McFerran points out, Sega pushed back against this newfound competition with the first of its audacious ads, “The Cyber Razor Cut.”
It introduced Jimmy, the cybernetically enhanced video game fanatic who, along with his young ninja sidekick, would go on to star in several more of the company’s commercials, like the Mad Max-inspired “Howdedodat” spot. “Jimmy was an expression of how we thought players saw themselves,” Simon Morris, one of the campaign’s masterminds, told Eurogamer.
But, according to McFerran, he didn’t last long, and the company moved onto its next initiative, Sega Pirate TV, which started as a series of bizarre teasers in the form of commercial spoofs. “This was viral marketing before the idea of viral marketing was even a thing,” Morris told McFerran. “People didn’t have a clue what they were about and that was fine, it got them talking.” It eventually materialized as something even stranger, hyperactive ads starring a screaming skull and actor Steve O’Donnell, the barber from the Jimmy spots, in various roles. The most elaborate of these culminated in short films, like “Planet Of The Pigs,” where O’Donnell stars in an outrageous Planet Of The Apes parody, and a riff on Apocalypse Now, the making of which, Morris claimed to McFerran, could have started an international incident after his team set fire to a Burmese field they thought was in Thailand.
McFerran’s report goes on to talk about how, despite Sega’s success in the U.K., resistance from the company’s Japanese leaders and the looming end of the Mega Drive’s lifespan drove the minds behind these campaigns away. But as Morris pointed out to McFerran, their rebellious spirit lived on in the marketing direction of Nintendo’s next big challenger, Sony, and helped it secure gaming’s top spot with the PlayStation. As for the Sega ads themselves, while they reek of that distinct ’90s musk, their ambition, creativity, and craft is impressive to this day. “I say this with the utmost humility,” Morris said to McFerran, “but I feel it was a defining campaign in the video game category.”