Sony is leaning into the weird. Their new ad, titled “Feel The Power of PlayStation,” hammers on all the strangest buttons that a video game company could press. A team of soldiers go down into some post-Soviet hellbunker. Darkness and the echoes of the dead surround them. The sweat drips off their brows. For the first full minute of the ad, we’re in horror movie mode, with this team creeping through this crypt of humanity trying to search something out.
Their goal is revealed in partial images. The soldiers recoil in horror. The lights come up, and there’s a massive room of PlayStation consoles attached to beating human hearts. It’s bizarre, and everyone has to search for the metaphor being used here. PlayStation is life? PlayStation gets your heart pumping? It’s marketing via confusion. It’s something to talk about because it’s so strange, and it is more about promoting Sony as a brand of intriguing products than it is about one specific platform.
Historically, PlayStation and Sony have leaned into this kind of weird word of mouth as a mode of getting people talking. Before Twitter and its corporate accounts acting like humans or tweeting memes, Sony was getting experimental in order to distinguish itself from the competition. David Lynch’s “Welcome To The Third Place” ad for the PS2 has all the characteristic Lynch moves, but with a heart of exploration and mystery. In it, a protagonist travels through a dark passageway before emerging into a room where a bandaged figure, a clone of himself, and a duckman sit on a couch. His own right arm waves at him. The duck welcomes him to the third place.
And sure, it’s weird, and it is in many ways a kind of Lynchian greatest hits reel, but it also convincingly evokes the journey that video games can take you on. From the perspective of Sony, the message is perfectly clear: when you boot up a PlayStation, you’re entering into a whole other world where the rules don’t apply. Buckle up, because things are about to change. As another commercial from the time period shows and tells, this is a “different place” with “different rules.”To be frank, pumping hearts in the basement of a cement bunker feels just as much like Sony aligning its media presence as it is a return to form. Let’s not forget that Sony’s announcements at E3 2018 were made via trailer reveals in elaborate sets accompanied by live performances from people like The Last of Us soundtrack composer Gustavo Santaolalla. Sony is interested in promoting its games and the platforms they live on as places where creativity and art come alive, and a meandering pseudo-horror commercial seems closer to that ethic.
In many ways, this is a breath of fresh air for those of us who have found Sony’s advertising strategy to be a little odd over the past few years. 2013 gave a commercial that was so celebratory about you, the cool player who does cool things, that it was downright embarrassing. The most notable campaign since then has had a similar tone, although it has leaned more into the “epic” nature of taking on fantastical roles when playing video games. Centered on a guy with a beard that I can only call “Sony Man,” he walks you through what the PlayStation offers and gives you a glimpse at all the worlds you can inhabit.
Similarly, last year’s “It’s Time To Play” ad is all about how familiar characters and faces are here to bring you along and light up your life. These recent ads all have the vibe of treating you like Dorothy at the end of The Wizard of Oz: “And Kratos was there! And Cloud, yes, he was there! The Fortniters too!” It’s about recognition and that’s about all.
What’s so great about the return to the more oblique and strange ads is that they’re less about recognition and more about a feeling. As an ad, it’s about communicating not the characters you can see but the tense, strange emotions you might feel when playing a video game. It’s about giving you a tonal world, not a designed one. That’s something Sony seems uniquely interested in, and I’m glad for it.