Video Game Commercials and Gender Neutrality

Last year, an observant little girl named Riley asked a question to millions of YouTube viewers: why is toy marketing gender-segregated? Specifically, why is it that boys are “expected” to buy superheroes in an assortment of colors, while girls are “expected” to buy dolls packaged in pink? Riley’s YouTube rant has since sparked a great deal of conversation across newspapers and blogs regarding the methods that toy manufacturers use to hock their wares to young boys and girls. We’re asking, what reasons do Disney, Mattel, Lego, Hasbro, etc. have for separating the girls’ toys from the boys? Can’t girls latch onto Mechano? Can’t boys admire princesses? Should we discourage girls from playing with dolls, even if they clearly enjoy doing so? Will there ever come a day when we can pass by the Barbie display without feeling as if we’re being smothered in an ocean of pink (with purple accents)?

It’s an interesting debate to be sure, and here’s another angle that’ll keep us conversing for some time to come: what about video game marketing? Can game commercials be considered gender-neutral?

Obviously, marketing a digital experience is a little different from marketing a toy. For one thing, the toy market as we know it is oriented at kids aged 3 through 15 or so. Game ads, on the other hand, need to appeal to kids as well as adults. That said, going by North American TV ads, we can see that advertisers generally do a good job selling modern games to both males and females–though there’s still room for improvement.

Boys and their Games — Commercials of the Past

The interesting thing about televised game ads is that some of the earliest fare was engineered to appeal to families and girls. The North American commercial advertising Pac-Man for the Atari 2600 starred a little girl (and Mr. Hooper from Sesame Street in one of his final roles). Another TV ad for Atari in general depicts a family having a good time with Space Invaders and other games.

As games became more complex with the NES, so did the commercials advertising them. It was also around this time that video games gained infamy as a “pastime for boys,” and the ads seemed to reflect that. Girls and families became a rarity on-screen (though the fewer human beings who contaminated themselves by associating with the original commercial for The Legend of Zelda, the better). There is one notable exception, and that’s the famous and still-excellent commercial for Super Mario Bros. 3, which shows an equal number of girls and boys cheering for the arrival this epic Mario title.

The 16-bit era of game commercials continued its all-boy bender, which isn’t surprising given that it was also the era of “attitude.” Nintendo and Sega fought for the hearts and minds of teenage boys with ample use of the “Sega Scream” and (sigh) Nintendo’s “Play It Loud” campaign.

Gaining Neutral Ground

The shift in game advertising to more neutral ground was gradual, and we can’t even say for sure that it occurred because console manufacturers and game developers smartened up and began to realize that there has always been a female player base. In fact, early print ads for the Sony PlayStation were undeniably male-oriented and made references to sexy leather-clad babes, wet dreams, and the like. Nevertheless, the shift from 16- to- 32 bits also marked the shift from 2D to 3D graphics, and commercials were more inclined to show the new feats that games were capable of in lieu of showing the enjoyment of the people playing them. Since anyone can be impressed by the cinemas in Final Fantasy VII (or could be impressed, at the time), there’s nothing decidedly “male” or “female” about these ads–for the most part. The ad for Battlefield 3 shows off lots of in-game explosions, which is fine; men and women are equally capable of getting a kick out of watching stuff blow up. But the choice of the commercial’s background music is questionable, namely Jay-Z’s “99 Problems [But a Bitch Ain’t One].” 99 Problems, when taken as a whole, is a song about America’s divisions between class and race. When its chorus is repeated over and over in the Battlefield 3 commercial, however, it’s easy to take out of context, and feels weirdly out-of-place and aggressive. Even if you’re a female who’s into war games and first-person shooters, watching the commercial makes you feel like the game is simply not interested in including you.

By contrast, some of the most successful commercials in modern game history have combined game footage (or cinemas rendered in the game’s art style) and licensed music in context. This method intrigues everyone about a title’s story, setting, characters, and concept, including men, women, boys, girls, gamers, and non-gamers. The commercial for Borderlands is a good example, as is the commercial for Gears of War, and BioShock. One game ad that really grabbed an audience without trying to appeal to one gender or another was the “Believe” series of ads for Halo 3.

A Regression? Hopefully Not

In 2011, Ubisoft continued the practice of combining game footage with licensed music to produce a commercial for Just Dance 3, and the spot’s widespread appeal was heightened by the inclusion of clips of all types of people playing together. Nintendo’s holiday showing, however, was a tiny bit disappointing. Its commercials for Mario Kart 7, Super Mario 3D Land, and The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword are all wonderfully done; who doesn’t fantasize about jumping on Mario-style platforms, holding the Master Sword aloft, or creating Mario-style mayhem with a go-kart (hey, wait, someone has already lived the dream)? But each adventurer who steps up to the challenge of exploring Hyrule or the Mushroom Kingdom is male–with the exception of the girl who’s posing as Princess Peach in the Mario Kart 7 commercial.

To Nintendo’s credit, though, its secondary Zelda-related ad campaign that garners insight on the Zelda series from one Zelda Williams and her father, Robin Williams, is pretty awesome.

Though game ads aren’t always perfect demonstrations of what needs to be done to appeal to both men and women, maybe the toy industry could take a peek at how games are sold. It’s a matter of taking your audience as a whole and trying to ignore gender divisions. On the other hand, we advise the toy industry against becoming so ambiguous about their ads that they produce another PlayStation 3 baby ad. We’ve already had our minds melted down to slag by a commercial once; we don’t need it to happen again.

About Nadia Oxford
Nadia is a freelance writer living in Toronto. She played her first game at four, decided games were awesome, and has maintained her position since. She writes for 1UP.com, Slide to Play, GamePro and other publications, and is About.com’s Guide to the Nintendo DS.

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