Sony's newest catchphrase, "make.believe," is a fitting reminder that Sony ads make no sense. Laptops take flight, PlayStations become monsters, and pitchmen state plainly that Sony TVs make you better at playing sports. Most of all—look! Play-doh bunnies!
Back when Sony had only electronics to sell, they sold them like no other—to borrow a more sensible slogan that the company recently retired. You bought a Trinitron TV because it was the best, you bought a Walkman because it was the coolest, and you told everyone else they were dumb if they didn't do the same. "It's a Sony!" you'd shout at any half-witted amigo who was reluctant to pay the Sony premium.
Sony worked hard to make you a part of its marketing team. They even went so far as to indoctrinate the children. When the My First Sony line was launched, it actually made sense, because it reinforced what you already believed: that you would buy in and keep on buying. Brand did matter, but only by standing for specific, high-quality products. There were 170 different Walkman models released during its first decade, sure, but this was before MP3 players, cellphones, PDAs, laptops, portable game consoles and pocket-sized camcorders. Besides perhaps a 35mm compact camera, this was the only portable gadget to buy. You knew you were getting it, so choosing which one became a connoisseur's dilemma. Even gorillas knew this.
By the time Sony got into the movie and record business, and the iconic cassette Walkman gave way to the less iconic CD Walkman, the Sony brand became bigger than the gadgets. With the eventual exception of PlayStation, the electronics lost their own identities. That's not to say the gadget well dried up. On the contrary, Sony released more and more, jazzing up tried-and-true businesses with progressive industrial design and catchy-sounding sub-brands. It's not a clock radio, it's a Dream Machine. Sony's brand momentum carried it successfully into new areas where they really could make a superior product. In addition to the videogame consoles, this included digital cameras, portable computers and dog-shaped robots.
But due to arrogance, an obsession with proprietary formats and a lack of stick-to-itiveness—coinciding with the rise of unexpectedly tough competition from Korea, China and Cupertino, California—the magic wore off. The "buy the brand" message lost its grip on shoppers, but to the increasingly out-of-touch executives inside the company, it seems to have become a rallying cry.
Sony started losing Number 1 positions in TVs, cameras and even videogame consoles, and found themselves unable to get the market leadership they assumed they'd easily grab in other areas, such as PCs or ebook readers. As they slipped, their advertising just got weirder and weirder. Ads now ranged from purely artistic—products saw hardly any airtime—to trippy—products were shown, but not in a way that a buyer could relate to—to sarcastic—where pitchmen and pitchwomen spouted nonsense and openly mocked customers, as if consciously parodying Sony's own classic advertisements.
Thanks to the miracle of YouTube, we can see how all three of these categories failed to hit their targets.
What can you say about this category, except that who doesn't like rainbow-colored Claymation bunnies hopping to late-'60s Rolling Stones?
Who doesn't like bubbles falling from the sky? Or the spontaneous proliferation of several million bouncy balls? Who among you doesn't like sound/vision experiments by avant garde directors cut to ADHD-friendly 3-minute lengths?
If you answered "no" to the above questions, you are lying. But to drive the point of failure home, let's hear from one of YouTube's commenters: "It's visually interesting but it comes across as some kind of dystopian vision of the future. An Orwellian kind of hell sponsored by Sony." Hell. By Sony. And I am not entirely sure I ever saw anything I could actually buy.
Another batch of ads featured real Sony products, but not in any way that helped the consumer decision. We begin with the PlayStation 3, according to this video, a dangerous, volatile and ugly beast that does… something:
Somehow they manage to convey all the tension of gaming without any of the fun. It's violent through and through, except for that quick bit with the butterflies.
Here is the Bloggie camcorder, whose simple demonstration has been so perverted, it would cause Steve Jobs—or even Steve Ballmer—to shoot the director between the eyes:
Never mind that, on this complicated-looking copy of a Flip camera, the 270º swivel lens is the only thing everyone would figure out immediately, why does the product have to be man-sized? And what's with the fingers guy?
In this whole mess, the most organic ad I could find was for Rolly, the short-lived zany Bluetooth music robot. I love the ad, but I actually know the product. The ad, to a lay person, would be confusing at best, and at worst would suggest a degree of interactivity that the product simply didn't have:
The ads that Sony should really be ashamed of, though, are the so-called expert ads, some of which ran on our own site this past holiday season. I will admit to being a fan of Peyton Manning and Justin Timberlake, but they're not experts, and I wouldn't trust them any more than I trust any of the other people on the so-called panel.
In the Sony Reader ad, when the poor actress has to ask the incredibly dumb question "Can I read a lot of books on this thing?" Amy Sedaris says yes and holds up her book, I Like You. It's worth noting that unlike her brother's works, Amy's book is highly visual, with color photos and lots of sight gags. It's excellent, but you would never ever read it on a Sony Reader—or on a Kindle.
In the camera ad, when the actress mentions that all the cameras look the same, baby-seal photographer Nigel Barker explains that "the technology in their cameras and camcorders makes it easy to get the best shot." This is something every camera maker would say about their cameras. It doesn't differentiate, and it can never be proven wrong.
During the TV ad, Peyton and Justin play pingpong. ESPN's Erin Andrews says to a bewildered family, "You can't fake Sony quality." Justin chimes in with, "The more sports you watch on a Sony, the better you get. At sports." And then a TV appears with the words HDNA scrawled across it, though the announcer says it's called a Bravia. I don't know what HDNA is, and I was there when they unveiled it.
In a rather ironic twist, these ads got remix treatment by the Gregory Brothers of Auto-tune the News fame. This isn't some Gray Album bootleg, but a viral video sanctioned by Sony's marketing department, an approval that shows Sony can make some daring choices when they want to. But was it the right move? I enjoy this remix more than any of the original ads, but it doesn't clear up any frustration either. It is a distortion of a distortion of a message.
Don't you feel like the Gregory Brothers know this? They openly mock the customers, and they repeat "these all seem the same" over and over—and over. I couldn't help but flash a knowing smile when Julia Allison explains that the Sony PC is different because it has a Blu-ray drive and an HD screen. Like every other Windows laptop in that range.
When criticizing advertising, the easiest thing to do is to point to Apple as the counter example. "Well, Apple would've done it this way." But truthfully, Apple achieves what most companies strive to pull off, an entertaining but earnest look at the product being sold, or a comedic vignette that drives a single sales point home. (Say what you want about Justin Long, but Hodgman's Eeyore of a PC sure sells Macs.) Like everything else, Sony needs to focus. Instead of hiring 20 different artists to conceive of crazy shit, why not create a global ad campaign that focuses on specific actual products, and portrays their standout features in a way that doesn't sound like it's mocking the products or the customers? My only fear is that as Sony has less and less to brag about, this strategy will be harder to work out. Still, it's worth a shot: Pick your best products, get closeup shots, play some baby music in the background, and tell us why we should buy them. No psychedelia, no anthropomorphic gimmicks, and no smirking.
The complete "We Miss Sony" series
• Video: Describe Sony In A Word
• How Sony Lost Its Way
• Sony's Engineer Brothers
• Infographic: Sony's Overwhelming Gadget Line-Up
• The Sony Timeline: Birth, Rise, and Decadence
• Let's Make.Believe Sony's Ads Make Sense
• The Return of Sony