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Before Dreamcast: Cracking Sega's Cryptic Marketing Campaign
By Cyril Lachel     |   Posted on September 09, 2014   |   Episode 58 (Show Archive)  

   

Next Generation magazine was ready for the Dreamcast's arrival!
For many people, today will be just another boring Tuesday. They'll work too hard at a terrible jobs, pay too much for gas, spend the night complaining about whatever is on TV and then go to bed unfulfilled in every way. Little do these people know that today marks an anniversary worth celebrating. This should not be just another Tuesday, because today marks the 15 anniversary of the Sega Dreamcast.

Although it only stuck around for a total of 19 months (29 in Japan), the Dreamcast's short life still feels important. A lot of this is due to a strong library that not only included some of Sega's strongest arcade games (Sega Rally 2, Crazy Taxi, etc.), but also daring original titles like Shenmue, Phantasy Star Online, Space Channel 5 and Rez. Although it was overshadowed by the likes of Sony's PlayStation 2, Microsoft's Xbox and Nintendo's GameCube, gamers around the world still love Sega's final home console.

With a year head start, Sega chose to introduce their Dreamcast in an unusual way. Taking a page out of Sony's confusing PlayStation campaign, the hardware giant chose to create a line print ads with cryptic messages. They hoped that the "It's Thinking" tagline would capture the mass market's curiosity in the same way that "U R NOT E" and "ENOS Lives" had only a few years earlier.

In the months leading up to the ninth of September, Sega released a series of bizarre print ads in magazines like Next Generation, Electronic Gaming Monthly and Game Informer. These single-page advertisements featured no mention of games, instead choosing to focus on close-ups of eyeballs and bald men. Throw in what appears to be unintelligible gibberish in braille and you have a commercial that still makes very little sense 15 years later.

Sega Dreamcast Teaser Advertisement

Published several months before the launch of the Dreamcast, this was Sega's first teaser. It featured a close-up of an eye with that all-too-familiar swirl. There's no mention of the console, not even in the fine print. Unless you noted the "Sega.com" URL or were familiar with Dreamcast's unique symbol, you would likely come away from this commercial scratching your head. On the other hand, there's a good chance you would remember that swirl the next time you saw it.
With the introductions out of the way, Sega turned their focus to a series of "It's Thinking" advertisements. With a firm release date in place ("9.9.99") and a catchy slogan, these three single-page commercials were slightly more informative than the first teaser. However, there was still a vital piece of information missing from these three ads -- the system's name.

Sega Dreamcast Commercial 0.01

This first commercial (marked "0.01") features what seems to be a very angry young man. He's a little out of focus and pixelated in parts, but it's clear that he's upset about something. While Sega would probably argue that this screamer would feel better with a new Dreamcast, I suspect what he needs is actual medication and anger management classes. "You know it's alive," the advertisement states. "Worse. It knows it's alive." Is this a commercial for a new Sega console or a low-budget horror film? With this image, it's hard to tell.

Sega Dreamcast Commercial 0.02

The second commercial is a little less agro, opting instead to highlight the eye. It's curious that Sega would choose to focus on the eye so soon after their similarly-themed teaser spot, but at least this version has a unique take. This is a much more interesting advertisement, thanks to a number of small details hidden throughout the page. Each square panel has a slightly different filter, and it has a strange A Clockwork Orange vibe. The ad concludes with this ominous quote: "Out smarting it will only make it smarter."

Sega Dreamcast Commercial 0.03

The third and final ad offers the clearest image yet, but that doesn't mean the message is any easier to decipher. The advertisement features a bald man covering one eye with his right hand. But that's not the weird part. For whatever reason, we can see his eye peeking through his hand, almost as if his hand was completely non-corporeal. If that's not strange enough, the slogan offers this curious line: "Even if your memory doesn't fail you. It can't help you."
Without wanting to sound redundant, all three of these commercials look more like posters for artsy horror movies than a major console launch. They never once mention the system's name and the Dreamcast swirl is reduced to only a small icon in the corner. This campaign hopes you want to live in a futuristic world where your electronics are not only thinking, but evolving and becoming more intelligent. If science fiction movies and books are any indication, all this leads to game consoles overthrowing humanity and using us as batteries. Maybe it's a good thing that Dreamcast only lasted 19 months.

After running these cryptic messages for a couple months, Sega decided to create an insert that, at long last, explained what the Dreamcast was all about. Best of all, it included the images and names of two dozen titles from some of the biggest publishers in the world. This eight page fold-out also included information about the system's bulky controller, Visual Memory Unit and 56K modem.

Sega Dreamcast Insert
Click here to see the full advertisement!

Although it still offers a few confusing quotes, this launch advertisement does cuts back on the weirdness and delivers a cohesive message. But while I commend this commercial for being more on message, I can't help but notice all the unused space. Only Sonic Adventure and NFL 2K get the full-page treatment, while the other 24 titles fight for space on a single page. I don't know what the Dreamcast was thinking of, but it clearly couldn't be bothered with coming up with a more efficient design.

No matter what you thought of Sega's approach, you can't argue with the results. The Dreamcast was a huge hit in the United States, selling closer to 400,000 units in just only four days. A surprised news media was quick to compare Sega's $132 million in sales to the much-anticipated Star Wars prequel, which "only" brought in $65 million in its opening weekend.

Sega Dreamcast Insert
Click here to see the full advertisement!

For a few weeks in 1999, it truly felt like the Dreamcast was unstoppable. Unfortunately, Sega wasn't having as much luck overseas. Couple this with the threat of three major consoles (and a lack of Electronic Arts sports games) and Sega wasn't able to hang on. The video game giant exited the hardware market in March of 2001, leaving to become a celebrated third-party publisher.

For a few weeks in 1999, it truly felt like the Dreamcast was unstoppable. Unfortunately, Sega wasn't having as much luck overseas. Couple this with the threat of three major consoles (and a lack of Electronic Arts sports games) and Sega wasn't able to hang on. The video game giant exited the hardware market in March of 2001, leaving to become a celebrated third-party publisher.

Regardless of what you think of Sega in 2014, it's important to remember that there once was a time when the Tokyo-based company was not afraid to take chances. Even if you never managed to decipher these cryptic messages, the imagery was certainly memorable. As far as I'm concerned, we could use more of that in this day and age.
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