In a field, the spotted stunt dog from 101 Dalmatians is rehearsing its moves. In the studio next door Gryff Rhys Jones is filming a scene from Wind in the Willows. And the man from Sony is over the moon because he’s just had the chance to fulfil a childhood dream and put his hand up Kermit the Frog’s bottom.
Kermit, the Muppets character, is at Shepperton Studios to film a new movie. The man from Sony, communications director Phil Harrison, is here to shoot Sony’s new 35m pan-European campaign for its CD-based games machine Play-Station. The ads, created by Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow & Johnson, break on Friday (October 6).
Harrison has two PR men with him, a posse of cameramen and an excited prop man – who’s just heard about a possible cheap deal on the prop TV sets being loaded into the back of a Sony van. Also with Harrison is a man in an ill-fitting blue nylon suit and horn-rimmed glasses known as Dwight Dibbley.
If all goes to plan, Dibbley will be a cult hero this side of Christmas. The character is Sony’s joker card in its battle to dominate the computer games market.
Sony launched its PlayStation machine on September 29, 11 weeks after rival Sega launched Saturn. By the time Sony’s product had made it to the shops, Sega had already sold more than 10m worth of machines and spent 20m on ads. Dibbley is intended to redress the balance.
Back at Shepperton Studios, Dibbley’s nose is being attended to by a make-up artist. He has every right to be sweating. Dibbley is encased in a boiler suit and metal helmet and has his hands in a radiation tank. The day before he spent the day cavorting with a chimpanzee and exploding rats and dancing around with a stick. The following day he will be blown up and catapulted out of a bunker.
Dibbley will feature in a series of eight ads for Sony, playing the part of the spokesman for the Society Against PlayStation (SAP) – or the equivalent translation for the 13 countries where the ads are being shown. SAP is a mythical society that will broadcast spoof public service announcements warning people against buying Sony’s new “vile, depraved” games console.
The ads, filmed in a Seventies retro style, feature a Brady Bunch lookalike family and, in a spoof public service-style announcement, show the possible consequences of being exposed to PlayStation. Rats explode. The family turns into chimpanzees.
Dibbley urges in favour of the safer option of buying SAP-approved toys – like the SAP stick. This is literally a stick, and is demonstrated by Dibbley dancing around singing “it’s not too thick, it’s not too thin, it’s a stick, stick, stick”. The take is going down well. The video controller has watched the scene at least 50 times and is still laughing.
Round the set the PR men are furiously bouncing ideas. The idea behind the ads is that they will generate acres of free publicity and create more coverage for the brand. There are plans to sell real sticks on the shelves next to Sony products. Hasbro has already been approached about the possibility of a Barbie and Ken stick, together with a special camouflage version for Action Man. There are plans for Dwight to appear on chat shows and tentative talk of releasing a single to try to top the Christmas record charts.
PR stunts based around an ad push are not a new idea. HHCL & Partners covered a newsagent in orange fur for its Tango brand (MW September 8), Nike unfurled a 40ft flag of Manchester United football star Eric Cantona in front of 80 million TV viewers at a soccer match. Sega projected an image of John Redwood and John Major onto the House of Commons in the dead of night, portraying them as sparring Sega games characters (MW July 7).
“Before, video games marketing has all been science fiction fantasies sold in ads to 13-year-old boys,” says Harrison. “Here, the attraction is that the ad vehicle itself will be talked about.”
It has to be. The battle to win Christmas sales will be hard fought. Sony faces the marketing might of Sega – now well into its controversial cinema campaign that features a man being killed. Sony is also facing pressure from Nintendo, which under its new owners Total Home Entertainment is investing heavily to ready retailers for the launch of its Ultra-64 games machine next year (MW August 25).
The Sony campaign may be different. The ads may have made the film crew laugh and Simons Palmer’s script may have won over Sony, but there is a risk that the teenage market – currently being offered everything from moody suicide themes courtesy of Pepe Jeans to controversial sexual images from Calvin Klein – will remain unmoved by the sight of exploding rats, cavorting chimps and dances with sticks.
True to form, Sony’s UK head of marketing Simon Jobling is optimistic: “The question is not whether we can out-sell the competition, but whether can we out-sell it in the first week. The market is absolutely ready, and Dibbley is absolutely the right vehicle to get awareness fast.”
Back in the studio, there is at least one potential customer. Calm descends as Dibbley exits the radiation tank and has his nose powdered once more.
A lone voice can be heard on the set. Thwarted in his attempts to buy the TV, the prop man can be heard haggling in the corner for a cut-price PlayStation.