The Super Nintendo Was My Gateway Drug to Consumerism

With the SNES Classic out this week, we asked an expert why the ads of the original console were so effective on us.
September 27, 2017, 2:05pm
Image courtesy of Nintendo

If I think back, way back into the depths of my memory, all of my earliest recollections involve media of some form or another. I remember the first movie I ever saw in a theater: the 1990 re-release of The Jungle Book. I remember my first TV obsession: Pee-Wee's Playhouse. And I remember the first tangible thing I ever wanted: the Super Nintendo.

Released in the United States during the late summer of 1991, the system looms large in the minds of plenty of folks my age—which is likely why Nintendo is seeing sales success with this week's SNES Classic. The original Super Nintendo was, of course, incredible, and deserves praise. But its status in my nostalgia has an origin separate from the console's quality: Nintendo also launched a massive, aggressive marketing campaign leading up to the system's release. From commercials appealing to angsty teens (see below) to Nintendo Power and promo VHS tapes, Nintendo did a great job of making sure they were on the tips of everyone's tongues. And this is where my too-young obsession with the system began, and where I got my first taste of consumerism.

Above: Paul Rudd gazes in awe at the Super Nintendo.

I'm sure there's the odd toy or gimmick I asked for before the Super Nintendo, some Ghostbusters tie-in or the Batman cereal, but my first true object-based obsession was, without a doubt, the SNES. My parents, perhaps after checking the $199 price tag on this new video game about to hit shelves, promptly shut down the notion. I distinctly remember seeing the commercials and asking, again and again, and getting answers like "you already have one," and "it's too expensive." Apparently we weren't the only household having this conversation:

According to my dad, who I just rung up and forced to join me down memory lane, "You never threw a tantrum or anything, you weren't that kind of kid. But I remember you asking us for it over and over."

Whether I moped in private or he's selectively editing the golden years of my childhood, I can't say, but I distinctly remember a foul mood setting in. I would lay, facedown, on the couch, just thinking about the amazing graphics I wouldn't get to see. Just thinking about how the koopa troopas now walked around on two feet, and wore shoes! What new challenges did this pose for our hero Mario? In the end, my parents surprised me with a Super Nintendo that following Christmas. Whether I changed their minds or, more likely, they'd been planning on getting it for me all along and were just messing with me ("I was very tricky!" my dad explained with glee), I finally got what I wanted, and it was time to play.

But the memory of that materialistic longing, as superficial and bratty as it now seems, always stuck with me. Why was I so obsessed with the Super Nintendo, and what effect does a media-blitz advertising campaign have on a five-year old kid?

"There's been a lot of attention paid on just children's ability to understand exaggeration and claims," Dr. Roger Desmond, professor at the school of communication at University of Hartford, explained to me. "The American Medical Association puts it at age eight before kids really understand the intent of what the advertiser is trying to do. And that is tricky, because if they think it's just another form of entertainment, they're going to want that thing, they're going to beg their parents for that toy. So a lot of it has to do with what we consume and how we believe it. How much we accept it. Those are some real areas of general concern."

Above: Nintendo's ad for the new SNES Classic is filled with retro gaming nostalgia.

But surely we must have plenty of regulations and policies in place to prevent an overload of advertising, right? "No! [Laughs] I can't think of any kind of substantive change in any kind of commercial network, magazine, or whatever that's really had any kind of impact. We're pretty far behind the rest of the world in terms of trying to do anything about it," Dr. Desmond explained.

"Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, Australia—all of these have some kind of restriction. Denmark's fairly radical, they don't allow any advertising for any toy or product aimed at kids under twelve until 10pm. That's pretty serious, making sure kids aren't seeing it. And some countries have actually banned them outright." But what about the United States? "Not a chance. Regulation in this society doesn't seem to be the path to doing anything about it. A lot of people, including myself, hold out some hope for some form of media literacy training, media education. And that means from the time kids are very, very young, talking to them about how advertising works."

Dr. Desmond went on to explain that it's a pretty obvious cause and effect when it comes to advertising to children. "Kids exposed to a lot of advertising, as you could imagine, tend to ask their parents in the store to buy more products, and tend to be brand conscious. They're loyal, which seems to be the function of a lot of advertising."

I wanted to know if my sour mood was out of the ordinary, so I shared my story of SNES obsession with Dr. Desmond. "I don't think that's unusual. I think that happens with a lot of kids." But Dr. Desmond says this isn't just a product of the modern era, "I remember reading articles about kids, before there was electronic media, parents worrying about their sudden demands for more Christmas presents went up, and they were terribly disappointed when they didn't get the presents they wanted. And I think that's part of growing up, too, the realization that we can't get everything we want all the time. And those commercials attracted kids, and a lot of kids got Super Nintendo's, obviously."

So what can parents do to make sure their kids don't go my route and lose themselves in the big material want?

"The hardest thing in the world is for someone like a writer like you, a researcher like me, to say to someone 'be a better parent.' That's real easy to say if you don't have four kids in the house all crammed in during the winter watching the box. Just keep the dialogue going. Too many parents don't talk to their kids about the media that they're watching. And sometimes you can just say 'Okay, did you enjoy that commercial? Was it fun to watch?' and they might say 'yeah!' You should ask 'Well, what do you think they want you to do?' A lot of kids will just explain that it's a break from the TV shows, or they think they want you to know about it, they don't get the persuasion part. And I think that dialogue will help arm a kid against that susceptibility. It's all about education. A well-educated child will know the difference between BS and truth."

In the end, I wish I knew the difference between BS and truth. Because while I have plenty of fond memories of the Super Nintendo, I also have plenty of embarrassing memories acting out when I thought I wouldn't get it. And besides, I could have waited a bit, Clayfighter wouldn't even hit shelves until 1993.

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