Can Sega buy success for the Dreamcast?

The $100 million marketing budget is burning a hole in the company's pocket. But will all the hype sell the new gaming console?

Published August 25, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

A hundred million dollars is a lot of money -- especially when you're burning it all in one big marketing blitz. But Sega, which has put aside just that amount for the Sept. 9 launch of its new Internet-ready gaming machine, Dreamcast, has dreamed up lots of nifty ways to spend it.

Earlier this week, Sega blasted through at least a minor chunk of that cash by flying a roomful of journalists to San Francisco for two days of product previews, martinis, sushi, speeches, parties, more previews, more food and more speeches. On Monday, as part of this junket, Sega hosted a cocktail party at the swanky new W Hotel to debut the much-hyped ad campaign. (Sega is apparently proud to be hosting one of the most expensive product launches "in entertainment history.")

While gaming journalists dutifully took notes in their slick new freebie portfolios -- stamped with the spiral that is the Dreamcast logo -- the new Sega COO Toshiro Kezuka announced that launch day, "9/9/99, will be the biggest day in the history of the gaming industry." Sega screened the international motivational video for the Dreamcast employees for the journalists -- "this is the second time we've seen this today," groaned one junket-goer, a jaded gaming site editor. The video consists mostly of snippets of mosh pits, smashing cars, sex scenes and skydivers thrashing about to a Rage Against the Machine soundtrack. (Dreamcast, apparently, means "fearless, irreverent, passionate, defiant, unexpected." Who would've guessed?)

Company vice president Peter Moore then launched into a list of the way that $100 million would be spent: the usual roster of T-shirts, postcards, stickers and yo-yos, plus a guerrilla campaign that will draw chalk spirals on sidewalks. The Dreamcast console will show up on the Drew Carey show, in live celebrity demonstrations at malls, sporting events and as part of a "Mobile Assault Tour" that will send trucks tricked out like armored assault vehicles, and carrying 12 gaming consoles, to popular teen hangouts. There will be Dreamcast gaming championships, events like the "spud dive" (Dreamcast fans dive into vats of mashed potatoes to retrieve hidden objects) and the "funatics" competition (dress up like Sonic the hedgehog and win a prize, and yes, people do this).

But the point of pride on Monday was a pricey (or "breakthrough," as Sega boasted) new advertising campaign, animated by none other than Pacific Data Images -- the animation house behind the movie "Antz." In a series of spots debuting on MTV, Sega will introduce an animated world of Dreamcast characters that "live" inside your console and plot your demise, plus an eerie and striking Japanese-style action ad called "Apocalypse." The premise: that the Dreamcast is "thinking." As Brian Bacino of Foote, Cone & Belding, the creative director behind the ad campaign, explained, "We want to make this technology something to be feared."

Fear as a marketing tactic? Well, if the sushi and spuds and spirals don't work, perhaps striking terror into the hearts of your target audience of teenage boys will. With $100 million gone and the future of the company resting on this launch, something better work.

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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