I’m one year away from getting my Bachelor’s degree in advertising, and if there’s one thing I learned about the advertising industry in these past few years, it’s that it’s a mine field. All it takes is one wrong word, one wrong model, one wrong shirt, or one wrong placement, and suddenly the whole ad takes a completely new meaning–oftentimes a negative one. Let me show you an example.
Here we have an American Starbucks ad from 2002. Looks harmless right? The customers didn’t think so. This ad is from the Spring of 2002–care to remember what was heavy on America’s mind in 2002? I’ll give you a hint–it involved two tall, side by side structures and a flying object that planned on collapsing, but not into cool. That’s right, this ad was recalled because many customers thought that it was trying to demean 9/11. Was it intentional? Absolutely not. But this is just the point I’m making: Customers oftentimes see things that photographers and graphic designers don’t–and all it takes is one person to say, “Hey, this ad looks like 9/11!” and another person to agree with them before that’s all anyone can see. Suddenly, a harmless ad has turned into a vicious mockery–all without the company intending it. The advertising industry can be absolutely incredible sometimes.
As you can see, timing is one of the biggest factors that can lead to an otherwise harmless ad taking on a whole new meaning–just ask Weight Watchers, who probably learned this lesson the hardest in 1997. To summarize, the day following the death of Princess Diana–who, I’d like to remind you, died in a car accident in an attempt to flee a paparazzi–Weight Watchers sent out mail-in ads featuring the Duchess of York Sarah Ferguson saying that losing weight is “harder than outrunning the paparazzi.” You see where this is going, right? The campaign had been planned out months in advance, and by the time the news of Diana came in, the ads had already been mailed out and were immediately recalled. Timing is arguably the biggest factor that can lead to ads taking on completely new meanings. If that Starbucks ad had been released at least 3-4 years later, I highly doubt it would’ve been recalled for resembling 9/11. Likewise, had that Weight Watchers ad come out at least a year or two later, it wouldn’t have received any negative backlash either. But that’s not to say that time does nothing but work against an ad as it did for Starbucks and Weight Watchers–in Nintendo’s case, timing worked for them when it came time to start advertising the Gameboy.
As I’m sure your grandparents–even your parents or older friends and relatives–have wonderfully displayed for you, different eras of history had different values. Different values, different mindsets, different morals, different concerns, different interests. An ad that was effective in the 60’s wouldn’t be very effective today–and likewise, an ad made in 2016 wouldn’t be very effective in the 60’s. Ads generally have a very short shelf life because of how fast society changes–what’s trending, what’s effective, where is the target audience. Obviously there are a few ads out there that have managed to survive the tests of time longer than most–most well known among them probably being the man in the Hathaway shirt–but generally, even the longest living ads don’t live for more than a year. Think about it: A year ago, did you see any ads that are still where you found them? Are they still completely unchanged? Probably not. As society changes, so do ads. This is why ads from even the late 80’s and 90’s–such as the Gameboy–probably wouldn’t stop at just being ineffective in today’s market, but would probably be considered offensive by some.
Enough talk, let me show you what I mean:
In recent years, eating disorders have really started coming to the forefront of America’s attention–definitely much more so than they were in the early 90’s. That’s why when this ad was published, nobody bat an eye at it–because it was the early 90’s. Eating disorders weren’t considered a major problem by the American media yet. If this were to be published today, I’d bet you anything in the world that it would be criticized for “making fun of anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders.”
But that one’s not awful, right? To consider it offensive is a bit of a stretch, and I’m not trying to start a debate over whether it’s because people these days are more sensitive or if it’s because people have always been like this and it’s just that the Internet has been a more effective outlet to voice these concerns. When there’s an ad, no matter how innocent, someone somewhere will always find at least one thing they don’t like about it. You could have a charity ad filled with corgi puppies and someone, somewhere will say, “I don’t like this ad because I like pugs better.” It’s just that some ads–like any of the ones I’ve already mentioned–have more agreeable, more obvious reasons to be disliked than others. You can complain about the corgis all you want, but the fact of the matter is, most people think they’re cute and won’t care that it’s not a different breed of dog–because corgis are still cute. And I think this ad is one of those ads. You could argue that it’s offensive, you could argue that it’s just made in good fun. It’s not exactly heavily leaning in one direction or the other. Do I think it would cause controversy if it was used today? I could see it causing a little stir, but nothing major. I doubt it would get recalled, but I could definitely imagine some people having a problem with it. But the fact of the matter is, because of the time it was published, it didn’t cause any problems. Most Gameboy ads fall under this umbrella.
Another important factor to keep in mind about Gameboy ads is that at the time, although children were the largest audience for Nintendo, its adult audience was still sizable enough to make it worth making ads for–which is why you’ve probably noticed adult themes in some of these. Does that excuse some of these ads from being notable? You could argue one way or the other since, at the end of the day, Nintendo did still consider itself a family-friendly company even then, and these ads were basically their equivalent to some of the occasional adult lines in old kid’s movies.
Those are the ads that, in my opinion, might be considered slightly controversial if they were released today–they might have a few concerned customers (but again: no ad doesn’t) but it’s doubtful that they’d cause a major uproar.
Then there are these two:
Both of these ads are from the early 90’s–they’re from a time where trying to poke fun at racism and rape weren’t considered a red flag in not just advertising, but the media as a whole. Because of the time these ads came out in–a time where racism and rape weren’t in the spotlight of American media–these ads weren’t considered problematic. It should go without saying that if these ads were published today, they would put the utmost negative spotlight on the otherwise family-friendly Nintendo. They would be recalled immediately, talked about in several news outlets, and might even cause legal problems for Nintendo. Amidst the Pokemon Go hype, great expectations for the NX and Breath of the Wild, and the upcoming Pokemon Sun and Moon, it seems as though Nintendo is untouchable: Like nothing can bring them down right now. If these ads were to be published today, however, I’m absolutely certain that they’d be Nintendo’s kryptonite.
I’m not saying that we should judge Nintendo for these ads, though. Like I mentioned: It was a different time with different values. I’m not trying to say that this makes these ads okay–because frankly, it doesn’t–but these ads from 20 years ago don’t reflect the thoughts and feelings. These ads are awful, yes, but trying to purge them from Nintendo history is like trying to forget that there was a time when racism and rape weren’t considered major problems in the media–it’s like trying to censor Nintendo’s history. We’re not pardoning them, we’re simply acknowledging that there was a time when such behavior was considered acceptable. Censoring them and trying to brush them to the side is like trying to say it never happened. I’m not saying Nintendo should be proud of these–it shouldn’t. If I were in charge of their marketing, I know I wouldn’t be. I just think it’s important for us to remember the time these ads came out during when looking at these: These ads are 20 years old and should be taken with a grain of salt. They reflect Nintendo of the early 90’s–not Nintendo of 2016. It was an awkward time for Nintendo’s advertising department–their awkward, middle school years. They’re not proud of them–they shouldn’t be–but let’s not forget that there was a time when this was considered acceptable advertising.
The point I’m trying to make here is to show you how short the life of an ad is–these ads from 20 years ago would be considered downright unacceptable,and without a doubt would cost Nintendo millions of dollars, in today’s media. As I mentioned in the beginning of this, the advertising industry is a mine field, and if you didn’t believe me in the beginning of the article, I hope you do now. It’s looking back at ads like these that make me wonder what ads of today will be considered offensive in 20 years–or even 50 years! If you thought some of these ads were bad, you should consider looking at ads from the 40’s and 50’s. It was a different time full of different people with different values.