Hype Sheet: Pioneer's Nightmarish Vision

The Pitch Someone over at TBWA\Chiat\Day has been reading their Sandman back issues, it seems. How else to explain the terrifying image contained within this Pioneer spot, of teeth embedded in eye sockets—seems to be a direct rip from the Corinthian, no? The stuff of nightmares, perhaps, but also a pretty memorable come-on for the new Kuro lineup of best-in-class plasma TVs, which ostensibly provide the deepest, richest blacks this side of reality. Is Pioneer poised to become a serious high-end HDTV player, after a long stretch in the wilderness? Or is the company's massive effort on behalf of the Kuros too little, too late, what with brands like Samsung and LG already so firmly entrenched in the consumer psyche?


The Spin No one can accuse of Pioneer of acting hastily, at least in terms of launching its market assault on plasma leaders Samsung and Panasonic (who combined account for 54.2 percent of global plasma sales). Project Kuro has been in the works for about two years, and the publicity machine has been cranking at full-force since late spring—remember this highbrow teaser from May? Pioneer has taken its sweet time because it's expressly opposed to catering to the mass market—think of the brand as the anti-Vizio, committed to quality over affordability. (According to a recent Long Beach Press-Telegram article, Pioneer USA says lower Kuro prices are nowhere on the horizon.) The company is betting that there are enough luxury consumers out there to make this strategy worthwhile—a viewpoint aided by the fat margins on super-deluxe plasma TVs. Greatly helping matters, of course, is the wave of raves that have greeted the Kuro's American debut; Pioneer appears to be walking the walk on this product line.

Counterspin Pioneer's flagging TV division certainly could use a boost. The long gestation period for Project Kuro forced the company to trudge along with its PureVision plasma lineup well past the sell-by date. As a result, Pioneer's plasma sales tumbled in the first half of this year, dragging down the entire ship in the process; the company's Q2 operating income fell by nearly 80 percent versus the previous year, a tumble ascribed largely to plasma woes. Since then, Pioneer has entered into a curious sort of partnership with Sharp; the Aquos-maker is now Pioneer's single largest shareholder. This move was supposedly necessary in order to bolster Pioneer's R&D, and thus help it make good on its strategy of offering the finest TVs around. But in today's technology climate, how long will the Kuros be top-dog in terms of quality? No matter how many plaudits the line has received so far—including "Greatest Flat Panel Ever"—there's bound to be a superior competitor out there by Q4 of next year, if not sooner. Can cautious Pioneer act quickly enough to up the ante?

Takeaway Pioneer spent big bucks hiring TBWA\Chiat\Day, the agency best-known for its long relationship with Apple. It's a signal that the company is finally ready to play with the big boys, and the strategy already seems to be panning out: In Q3, Pioneer's share of the plasma market grew by 68 percent, to 6.3 percent (just behind Hitachi's 7.9 percent). The Kuros should do well this holiday season among fatcats, though the number of consumers able to splash out for a Pro 1150-HD (with an MSRP of $6,000) is obviously small. By resisting the general movement toward lower flat-panel prices, then, Pioneer is gambling that an economic slowdown doesn't affect consumers in the top five percent—and that said consumers are plentiful enough in the first place to make Project Kuro worthwhile.

Hype-O-Meter 8 (out of 10). Keep in mind that Pioneer was an also-ran in the plasma game this time last year; now the Kuro is a technophile must-have, buoyed in part by this arresting (if disturbing) ad campaign. But the next-gen of Kuros will have bring the goods, too—today's technological marvel, after all, is tomorrow's overpriced mediocrity.


Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired, a columnist for Slate, and author of the forthcoming Now the Hell Will Start. His Hype Sheet column appears every Thursday on Gizmodo.


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Good read. The Kuro pushed back my purchase to well whenever I can finally justify the extra price for a 720p at 1080p prices. I was planning on purchasing the previous gen 42" it is one of the few plasmas with pip etc. Bummer about the prices not dropping anytime soon. I've noticed the prices in general have actually increased since last spring when I compiled my xls analysis.