Somebody posted a song about the Karen meme on YouTube, and it’s pretty rad.
As a jingle, it’s catchy. As a summary of the meme’s many angles, it’s more or less accurate. (We can quibble about the use of the word “middle-aged” another time.) As a YouTube video, it’s compelling, with quick cuts and kawaii style. Finally, as an unanticipated voice in the dialogue between Nintendo and the hive-mind of its consumers, it reveals a sometimes overlooked aspect of the hype machine, audience participation.
Different Ways Companies Get Gamers Talking About An Upcoming Product
Ads for tech gear and games have two options for presenting products. Either they work with symbols and teaser imagery or they demo the products themselves. There are downsides to each. Teasers can completely misrepresent the actual product’s quality. (When you’re finished playing Daikatana, you really need to check out Duke Nukem Forever.) Demonstrations can be rote, dull, and tedious. Usually, an ad features some of each: symbolic non-gameplay sequences, demonstrations featuring a person holding a controller, and clips of gameplay, all spliced together into a theoretically cohesive whole that says, “You want this product.” Nonetheless, some ads take either a strictly symbolic or a strictly demonstrative approach.
In the strictly symbolic category, featuring zero gameplay and zero tech demo footage, is the Greatness Awaits ad for Sony’s PS4. In the strictly demonstrative category, featuring only gameplay, tech demo footage, and “realistic” situations in which the tech might be used, is the Nintendo Switch announcement. By using professional cosplayers and cinematic special effects, Sony’s PS4 Greatness Awaits campaign proves cosplay can be a thrilling alternative to the Nintendo’s literal product demonstration. Conversely, by avoiding clever filler material, a demo-style commercial can be just as effective, as the Nintendo Switch announcement’s continuing discussion proves.
In particular, the strictly demonstrative approach to tech advertising is difficult to get right. Dylan Nickels, avid gamer and friend of the author, has a good take on console makers who use realistic product demonstrations in their commercials. “They don’t want to sell you the box that makes you sit around looking boring by yourself. So they show people playing together and getting physically into the games in a way that I feel sober people rarely do.” Or else, they show people “playing [games] at parties.” Whereas the Wii and Wii U’s commercials went the “sober people jumping around” route, the Nintendo Switch commercial features people staring serenely, boringly, at screens and later, gaming in the middle of a rooftop party.
Sony’s Greatness Awaits Ad for the PS4
Sony’s commercial features a bold style and use of symbols. “You, with the imagination of a brilliant child and the powers of an ancient god… You, who can rescind life or raise the dead… You, whose name should be spoken in reverent tones or in terrified whispers. Who are you to deny greatness?” As a vehicle for an entertainment product, the commercial is a marvel of controlled, purposeful chaos. The wrecked car, the building crumbling, the neon paint spilling, the hitman gloves he pulls out of his back pocket, the threatening postures of the minions behind him, leading up to the big reveal and that wicked backhand… Drama, suspense, excitement, and a sense of wonder, all in a minute and thirty seconds.
Sony’s commercial uses the imagery of power fantasies. It’s on-point for a product that seeks to reach adults — or so my instinct tells me. My partner Laura points out that, if the commercial is as on-point as I believe it is, then the PS4 is not a product she would want to buy. She finds the commercial’s imagery befuddling and the commercial’s only speaker to be off-putting and creepy. Looking past his airs of white male privilege and entitlement, I’m struck by our cool/creepy guide’s commanding presence. From his stream-of-consciousness riffs on “you” and why “you” should be “great” to his unprovoked takedown of the pirate cosplayer, he exudes style.
The real rooftop party either doesn’t start until or stops abruptly when Sony’s cool and/or creepy guy walks in. If The Lonely Island’s maxim “Cool Guys Don’t Look at Explosions” still holds, then its corollary also holds: “Cool guys don’t look at the expensive car they just wrecked or the building crumbling behind them.”
Sony’s spokesperson doesn’t merely tear the roof off like some less cool guys. He tears the whole building down. One thing the commercial doesn’t tell us? Anything, anything at all, about the PS4’s specs, price point, games library, backwards compatibility, Sony’s plans to release the PS4 Pro within the same console’s life cycle, et cetera…
Awkwardness: The Curse, The Blessing
You’ve seen the ad for the Switch. It’s way too long. Aesthetically, it’s dull. Conceptually, it’s awkward. The most exciting things about the Switch commercial are Karen, console gaming on an airplane, Skyrim on a Nintendo product, the dog who gets ignored by an owner who doesn’t deserve him, and a Scooby-less gang playing video games in the Mystery Machine van. And yet, we can’t stop talking about the Switch. Some of us discuss the Switch despite the mundanity of its commercial. Others discuss the Switch because the ad’s situations are just so exquisitely awkward.
Aspects of Nintendo’s commercial are awkward to the point of being comical. In addition to the Karen phenomenon and the awkwardness with which she shows up to a party, Switch in hand, other characters “In my mind, when that dog barks it’s saying, ‘I need to pee!'” says a gamer named Magus. The dog barks, “knowing full well [its owner] Chad McJerkface is going to ignore the dog once at the park.” By giving gamers something to playfully mock and muse on, a mundanely presented demo-style commercial can wriggle its way into the collective consciousness. “I imagine Chad as one of those guys that only has a dog as a means to ‘get chicks’ at the park. Now Chad has a Switch that he might be able to use in a similar fashion.”
The drama of Chad and Karen is not part of the commercial. Rather, this drama is an indirect result of the ambiguity of the commercial’s demo scenarios. The imagined drama of Chad and Karen is part of the same awkward, creative conversation as the Karen song.
Although Nintendo may be unique for creating buzz with lackluster commercials, Nintendo is not alone in terms of awkwardly advertising.
After watching Sony’s promo for the PS4 Pro, all I know about the PS4 Pro is that it is (probably) not the same as the regular PS4. How is it different? Let’s see. It has a shorter announcement trailer. Does greater greatness await? What if I’m comfortable with my current level of greatness? How much greater can it get? I feel awkward having to ask these questions, Sony. You should quit being so cool and start being more like Nintendo. Nintendo’s dull, by-the-book tech demonstrations handle the awkwardness, so we don’t have to. In the process, Nintendo gives us a reason to sing.