Unless you’re a hardcore gamer, you may not know that today saw the debut of Sega’s Dreamcast video-game console, the first 128-bit system ever (that means it’s really fast) and the last hope for a corporation that has gone from having one of the strongest brands in the world to having the words “laggard” and “also-ran” permanently affixed to its name. But even if you haven’t noticed Dreamcast before today, it’s a safe bet that over the next few months the product is going to become inescapable, since Sega is in the process of spending tens of millions of dollars on an elaborate marketing campaign that includes, among other things, sponsoring tonight’s MTV Video Music Awards.
Dreamcast is, incidentally, quite dazzling, and the NFL 2000 game from Sega in particular is the most amazing sports video game ever created. But what with even more high-powered game systems arriving next year from Sony and Nintendo, Sega can’t rely on technology alone, although word of mouth should help sell a lot of the consoles. And so we’re getting a sophisticated, pseudo-grassroots ad campaign, with edgy graphics and oblique slogans. It’s a good campaign, but it’s not exactly revolutionary.
That’s not surprising, since at this point in the history of marketing, it seems impossible that you might actually come across something new. The irony, though, is that the TV ads for Dreamcast that Sega has run in Japan–where the system was launched last November–really are like nothing you’ve ever seen before. They’re self-flagellating, bitter ads that acknowledge not only Sega’s past blunders–in the early 1990s, Sega was the dominant video game maker, but it was crushed by both Sony and Nintendo when the Playstation and N64 systems–but also the quixotic nature of the Dreamcast launch.
The ads star an actual senior managing director of the company, a man named Yukawa Hidekazu, who looks much like what you imagine Japanese salarymen look like. In the first, Yukawa eavesdrops on two kids saying, “Sega video games suck. Playstation is much better.” Melancholy, Yukawa heads to a bar, gets drunk, and on his way home scuffles with some thugs, who beat him up. The commercial ends with him collapsed in the doorway of his house, as an offscreen voice exhorts, “Come on, Mr. Yukawa, get up!”
In the second ad, Yukawa is on a remote mountaintop, dressed in a business suit, talking to a group of seemingly friendly children who tell him that Sega has changed for the better. “Really?” he asks, at which point the children’s eyes turn black and they scream, “No, it’s a joke! We don’t need Sega–we want Playstation!” The earth then opens beneath Yukawa and swallows him, just before he wakes up on the floor of his office to realize that his secretary has caught him daydreaming. The ad ends with him reflecting on his nightmare.
The later ads are slightly more hopeful, but the overriding tone, which one Sega exec calls “this sort of wacky hara-kiri approach,” stays similar. That tone has made Yukawa a cult hero. He’s recorded a hit single, a love song to the Dreamcast, and Sega printed up a limited edition of six phone cards with his image on them. At a games conference in October, people lined up for hours to have their pictures taken with him. Most improbable of all, the Dreamcast box in Japan features a photo of Yukawa-san looking somehow anxious and yet charming.
Although the Yukawa ads are startling, they make sense in the context of the Japanese veneration of what scholar Ivan Morris famously called “the nobility of failure,” as well as what Moore calls “their emphasis on culpability and accountability.” As such, they throw into sharp relief the differences between the Japanese market and the U.S. market, and point up a basic problem faced by a company like Sega of America: This is an American subsidiary of a Japanese company, trying to target a market different from the one in which its parents are rooted. In other words, no Yukawa ads for us.