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Pirates of the airwaves: How Sega won the hearts and minds of a generation

"Does it look like we're trying to be a disco vicar?"

The year is 1992. In a typical British household a typical British family is huddled around the television, still unsure about what has just transpired during the ad break of their typical British soap opera. Nestled among the traditional commercials for washing powder and breakfast cereal is a blistering whirlwind of fast editing and bizarre imagery; a smoke-filled barber's shop, a handsome hero with bionic implants and a generous helping of slickly-edited footage from a series of video games, punctuated by an infectiously catchy slogan: To be this good takes Sega. The effect is mesmerising. This is the family's first taste of an advertising campaign that will change the way video games are promoted in the UK forever. This is the birth of 'Pirate' TV.

The road to this pivotal point in UK televisual marketing history is one that has been documented widely over the past few decades, but bears repeating. While Sega and Nintendo may be pretty cosy bedfellows today, thirtysomething players will vividly recall an era when these two giants fought tooth and nail, marking a dividing line in school playgrounds all over the world long before Sony and Microsoft came along and assumed the same roles. While there are subtle differences in the tale depending on whether you're based in North America or Europe, in the UK, Sega's ascendancy came out of a steadfast desire to swim against the tide and buck trends whenever possible, and the man who oversaw this gleefully disruptive approach was Nick Alexander.

Alexander's entry into the video game arena occurred in 1983, when he became Managing Director at Virgin, aged just 27. His relationship with Sega began when Virgin purchased British budget label Mastertronic, the firm responsible for Sega's European distribution, towards the end of the decade. "Sega had delivered its shipment of Master Systems to Mastertronic too late for Christmas, so furious retailers understandably cancelled their orders," Alexander explains. "Mastertronic was plunged into a financial crisis which was only solved by our acquisition of the company and the merger with Virgin Games to become Virgin Mastertronic, with myself once again in the role of Managing Director. As it happened, Sega had also failed to deliver on time to their distributors in France and Germany, and asked us if we would take on those two regions as well as the UK. We could see the NES was exploding in North America so it seemed like the right deal at the right time, so we agreed, laying down the foundations for Sega Europe - which Virgin Mastertronic would become in 1991 when Sega purchased the firm outright and I became Sega Europe CEO."

The feisty attitude which seemed to infuse all of Richard Branson's business ventures was present and correct in both Virgin Mastertronic and Sega Europe, and this directly influenced Alexander's stance when it came to promoting Sega's products. "In the early years of the '90s, Nintendo's marketing position was always kids playing with mum and dad, being happy families," continues Alexander. "We being a Virgin company, it just seemed obvious to me that kids didn't want to be playing with their parents. They wanted to be a bit more rebellious, they wanted to have a bit more attitude; this wasn't about being part of a happy family - this was about killing things, fighting things and driving very fast. So very naturally our positioning was much more about the individual player; it was pitched at an older player as well - the thinking was that if you get the older teenager then the younger children who aspire to be like their elder siblings will naturally follow. In truth, our marketing never really shifted from that core ideal. This is about being cool, and above all else not being like your parents."

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Nick Alexander (left) with Virgin's Richard Branson. Alexander headed up the company's first foray into the gaming arena.

Alexander's bold vision was to be executed by the crack marketing duo of Phil Ley and Simon Morris. The latter had attracted Alexander's attention after his sterling agency work on some of Virgin Mastertronic's very early Master System campaigns. "I was responsible for the first ads that were done, like the ones with the talking TV set and the first use of the 'To be this good takes ages' slogan," he explains. "They were very functional and moderately creative - it was standard category launch advertising, really. Following this I was then given the role of marketing director of Sega UK. Nick was my boss, Phil was running marketing for Europe and I was responsible for the ads."

Alexander and his fledgling team found themselves in a unique position when compared to Sega's other regional offices. "In Japan, Sega as a company measured itself against Nintendo, and they used to think that if Nintendo did it, we should do it too," he says. However, this approach hadn't resulted in any significant gains, with Sega's brand new 16-bit system seemingly unable to break the cast-iron stranglehold of the aging Famicom. "The Japanese market was something like 85 percent Nintendo, 15 percent Sega. In North America, the story was largely the same as Japan, with the NES enjoying almost complete control of the 8-bit market. But in Europe things were totally different - from the get-go we were the market leader. We were helped enormously by Nintendo changing their distribution arrangements in the UK pretty much every year because they hadn't got it right and kept trying to do something else." This allowed Sega to establish an early lead by tempting existing ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 owners to ditch their aging home micros in favour of the Master System, a console which offered generally faithful replications of the Sega classics they'd played in their local amusement arcades.

Despite its early European success, Morris felt at the time that Sega remained the outside bet. "The tectonic plates were still forming," he explains. "There were two big players and we were very much the underdog, in spite of our larger market share. In the early days we were the arcade business which was trying to become the living room business, and Nintendo - which was distributed by Mattel at the time - were very much the 'safe' family value business and had an amazing track record in Japan and North America. Nintendo was building awareness around its family-friendly image and around Super Mario, and our guess was that kids would ultimately reject that. We essentially set out to claim the space with our marketing, and the reference point I always give was that was that we were The Rolling Stones to Nintendo's Beatles."

It was clear from the outset that to capture the hearts and minds of the nation's youth a fresh marketing stance was required which disregarded all that had gone before. Nintendo had played it safe and tended to show families encamped around the TV screen with rictus grins etched onto their faces - a tried-and-tested approach intended to appeal to the doting parents who ultimately controlled the pursestrings - but Morris knew instinctively that connecting with the real audience, the players themselves, was the true route to cracking the market. "It was all about being rock and roll, it was all about being anti-establishment, it was all about being something that your parents wouldn't endorse in a million years," he says. "I used to have a picture on my desk of a what I called a 'disco vicar' - a vicar trying to get down with the kids at a church disco and failing miserably. We always held that up as a litmus test to our creative work. Does it look like we're trying to be a disco vicar? If it did, we wouldn't do it."

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Simon Morris' career has seen him work in games, TV and the web. He's currently European director of marketing at Amazon.

Which leads us back to the striking scene recounted earlier; the bemused family wondering what the hell they'd just witnessed during their previously sacred ad break. The 1992 commercial that really kicked off Sega's UK revolution was dubbed 'The Cyber Razor Cut' and its timing couldn't have been more perfect. Nintendo's 16-bit Super NES made its European debut in the same year, giving Sega its first true test in that region, and the company's weapon in the face of this technically superior rival was the impossibly slick Jimmy. Played by Welsh actor Peter Wingfield - who would go on to find global fame in Highlander: The Series and has recently retired from acting to become a doctor in the United States - Jimmy was the epitome of cool. The commercial opens with our hero entering a steam-filled barber shop, sitting in the chair and asking for the titular cut from the deranged barber, brilliantly brought to life by Steve O'Donnell - perhaps best known for his portrayal of Spud Gun in Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson's farcical sitcom Bottom. This request prompts a sequence where Jimmy's arms and eyeballs are 'upgraded' robotically, allowing him to master the blistering stream of Mega Drive games - of which there are over 100, Jimmy kindly informs us - which flood the screen.

This groundbreaking TV spot was filmed by award-winning cinematographer Geoff Boyle, who has been working in this arena since 1985 and can count Ford, Pepsi, Lego, BMW and Fosters as some of his past clients. "I remember having really great storyboards that were more like comics rather than 'ordinary' storyboards," Boyle recalls. "Storyboards for commercials are usually a series of images in the same format as TV and are intended to be a fairly strict guide. What we got with this was a great comic book with frame shapes all over the place; the intention was to give us the feel of the piece and to encourage us to explore and play with images."

Cyber Razor Cut pushed technical boundaries as well as creative ones, affording Boyle the opportunity to experiment with new gear and techniques."This was a time when cameras were evolving and speed changes in shots were becoming easier," he remembers. The shoot wasn't without its difficulties, however. "We had to raise the entire set up off the ground so that we could pump steam through and have it coming up through the floor - this tended to turn the set into a swamp! The huge steam boiler just outside the studio door was terrifying; I spent the entire shoot expecting it to explode."

Other commercials followed, showcasing the dynamic between the seasoned gamer and his young ninja sidekick. "We made those ads with John Lloyd - the director of Blackadder - and they really set us off in the UK," Morris says. "The backdrop was early London docklands scenery, which again was ahead of its time; when I see The Long Good Friday or Blackadder I think of how we brought those two disparate elements together with the Jimmy campaign." Sega's approach was thoroughly 'in your face' and certainly had an impact, yet it explored core themes which are almost timeless - it's just that they hadn't been applied effectively in the world of video game advertising before. "Jimmy was an expression of how we thought players saw themselves," explains Morris. "I worked with Amazon recently on the TV series Mr. Robot, and that's basically the same idea; over 20 years later and someone's turned it into a TV show! Jimmy was an ultra-cool tech kid living under the radar in a custom-built truck packed with cool gear and the latest games."

The Jimmy campaign continued with 'Howdedodat', a commercial set in a Mad Max-style desert environment that was focused on selling Sega's full-colour portable Game Gear console. "It was lit entirely with mirrors that had to be continually adjusted to compensate for the moving sun," explains Boyle. "The dust was just incredible. At one stage I complimented makeup on how good - or perhaps 'bad' is the right word - Steve [O'Donnell] was looking; he had a really dirty, greasy look. They replied that they hadn't done anything, and asked if I had tried sitting in his place. I duly obliged and discovered that the effect of all my mirrors was to create a ferocious oven far, far hotter than the already baking heat. No wonder he was sweaty!" Filmed just outside Guadix in Spain, the logistics of Howdedodat's production ensured that Boyle and his team faced some interesting questions at the customs desk. "We had to explain to officers that the huge bag of sand we had with us was in fact just a huge bag of sand - we did the close-up in a studio back in London and wanted to make sure that the sand matched."

However, even this ice-cool hero was eventually seen as too obvious and predictable, and Jimmy would be put out to pasture as Sega shifted onto the next phase of its anarchic marketing blitz. "We carried on the revolutionary theme with Sega Pirate TV, which was a vehicle that gave us much more flexibility," Morris says. "We actually launched with a series of spoof adverts for fictional products - the one I remember really well was a detergent called Ecco." These short-burst commercials were supported by a billboard campaign which carried what appeared to be legitimate posters for these fake products, but when the corners were torn off after a few days the Pirate TV logo would be revealed, along with the day and time of the 'proper' commercial - something that in the days before the internet was quite a unique undertaking. "This was viral marketing before the idea of viral marketing was even a thing," chuckles Morris. "People didn't have a clue what they were about and that was fine, it got them talking."

While Peter Wingfield's wisecracking Jimmy had been unceremoniously jettisoned, O'Donnell's hyperactive character was retained as a spokesperson of sorts for the Pirate TV run, which was about to take off in the grandest fashion imaginable. "We launched the Mega CD in 1993 with a two-and-half minute commercial, which was an entire ad break - I don't think that had been done in the UK before," Morris recalls. The spot contained a pastiche of the Francis Ford Coppola movie Apocalypse Now. It was filmed on location in Thailand at great expense and saw O'Donnell assuming the role of the insane Colonel Walter E. Kurtz - only in this version, he's gone AWOL to play video games. "We'd actually acquired the boat used in the footage from the Thai army and we had the use of government resources to help us with our shoot," explains Morris. "We took a normal bridge, stuck bamboo all over it and blew it up. Then we set fire to a field to get the right backdrop for the shoot, only realising later that we had actually crossed the border into neighbouring Burma, potentially triggering a diplomatic incident. Naturally, we were asked to explain ourselves afterwards, but we always seemed to be asking for forgiveness rather than permission - that would be the best way to summarise the whole approach of that period." Slapped wrists aside, it's impossible to ignore the astounding impact this commercial had. "I'm pretty sure that the spot only ran 11 times, but in later life when I meet people, they all recall seeing it," Morris continues. "I like to refer to this as 'The Woodstock Effect' - the number of people who say they went to Woodstock and the number of people who actually went are wildly different, and that commercial achieved the same kind of notoriety and cachet."

The later 'Planet of the Pigs' commercial was even more bizarre than its predecessors, boasting a dystopian setting, hordes of evil porkies and a vengeful O'Donnell brandishing remodeled Mega Drive II and Mega CD II consoles. On the other side of the pond Sega of America - under the sterling leadership of former Mattel boss Tom Kalinske - had also achieved success by targeting older players with edgy marketing, but even so, Alexander admits that it was often difficult to get his Japanese bosses to grasp precisely what Sega Europe was trying to achieve with its campaign. "I think it would be fair to say they were completely bewildered," he says. "They'd look at the sales and see we were getting results, but they really didn't get it at all. I remember having a meeting with Sega president Hayao Nakayama in London and him suggesting we should use the Japanese ads in Europe to save money - ads which aired in a market where Sega had a 15 percent share. I politely explained that it would make more sense for them to use the European ads in Japan."

It can't have been easy to convince Sega of Japan that demonic barbers, spoof commercials and imperialistic pigs were required to sell the brand to the UK masses, and Morris feels that Alexander doesn't get enough credit for the protection he afforded his marketing team at the time. "We really pushed things," he admits. "We had outrageous print ads in Viz which made allusions to masturbation and featured slogans like 'The more you play with it, the harder it gets' at a time when our biggest rival was trying to be whiter-than-white and was focusing on families as its target audience. Nick to his credit protected us from Sega of Japan superbly, until one day someone happened to see one of the Viz adverts on a flight back to Tokyo and went absolutely tonto! Nick was an amazing leader who allowed his lucky generals - myself and Phil Ley - to go and create merry havoc, and it worked."

It was around this time that Nintendo finally tried to fight back with its own campaign, enlisting comedian Rik Mayall to front a series of irreverent TV commercials - also directed by John 'Blackadder' Lloyd, coincidentally - which aimed to appeal to the same audience that Sega had so successfully courted. Morris is just as unimpressed now as he was when they originally aired. "We had already taken that space and it was very difficult to oust us from that position from that point on," he says. "If I had been Nintendo at that time I would have thought about how this makes the company look in the eyes of the consumer - trying to take a space that isn't rightfully yours. But still, in some ways imitation is the sincerest form of flattery - it proved that we had got it absolutely right, at least."

As Sega's standing in the UK grew, so too did the promotional opportunities available to the company. In 1993 the firm became a lead sponsor for the Williams F1 team, and in doing so, unwittingly helped forge motorsport history. "We knew one of Damon Hill's oldest friends and via this contact we committed to giving him the money which was instrumental in getting a drive with Williams that year," Morris explains. "Bringing sponsorship into Williams meant that he got his seat confirmed, which meant he was in a position to do what he later did, which was win the world championship in 1996 and become the first - and at this moment in time, only - second-generation driver to do so."

Sega's 1993 adventure in Formula One didn't end there; that season it purchased the naming rights for the European Grand Prix, which took place in soaking conditions at the Donington Park racing circuit in the East Midlands. "It was a 'floating' Grand Prix and no one else wanted to sponsor it," Morris recalls. The venture cost a considerable sum of money and Morris admits that at the time he and his team received quite a bit of flack from the higher-ups at Sega as a result, but in hindsight it was nothing short of a marketing masterstroke. "If you ever watch Asif Kapadia's excellent documentary film Senna or indeed anything to do with F1, you'll know that the opening lap that Ayrton Senna recorded during that race - in which he overtook four drivers in the driving rain - is acclaimed as the best lap ever by fans of the sport," explains Morris. "It's impossible to show that lap without showing Sega branding."

As well as having its logo emblazoned on practically every advertising hoarding on the circuit, Sega commissioned a special Sonic the Hedgehog trophy that was held aloft by the triumphant Senna on the podium. No promotional option was left untouched. "We got them to draw Sonic's feet on the side of the Williams FW15C so it would look like he was driving and we were even trying to sponsor the underside of Damon Hill's car in case he ever turned it over," laughs Morris, though it's obvious that he's not joking. "I was recently at McLaren and some of the guys there reminded me that we used to put a Pirate TV insignia on the car for every race Damon won, so they in turn started putting a squashed hedgehog on the front of Senna's car when he won! Can you imagine that happening in the sport today, with the incredible sharing power of the internet and social media? It would go wild! Like so much of our promotional activity at the time, it was one of those things that simply came together." The irony of this friendly rivalry between Sega-backed Williams and McLaren was that Super Monaco GP II, the 1992 Mega Drive sequel to the famous arcade title, carried Senna's endorsement and had been developed with his input.

While there are other elements which were instrumental to Sega's success at the time - such as excellent games, robust third-party support and decent pricing - it's impossible to underestimate the contribution of the firm's marketing, the tool which allowed Sega to enter countless homes around the UK and turn apathetic teens into loyal, almost fanatical recruits to the cause. "We turned a very small market share into a dominant share at the end of the 16-bit era," says Morris. "We had 75 percent of the market at one point and we were the first to do a million units in single day. The release of Sonic 2 was record-breaking - you think about that launch in the days before digital, that was utterly phenomenal to ship over 750,000 units through retail. But even then, we only spent what we made so we were never being ridiculously profligate; we were paying our marketing bills out of our revenue - it was old school, the pre-dot-com days where the means justified the ends and the ends justified the next means. There was effective control in that sense."

However, nothing lasts forever and as the 16-bit glory days drew to a close Alexander became disenchanted in his role. "The lack of understanding between Europe and Japan was a large reason why I decided I should move on," he laments. "We had realised at the beginning of 1993 that the 16-bit market was going to decline and that it would be some time before 32-bit machines would be at a price that made them mass-market, so there was a summit at the beginning of the year and we decided that what we needed to do was diversify in some way, to secure another revenue stream. I came up with the idea of acquiring Thames TV, which had a huge library of programmes and good animation studios but had just lost its broadcast rights. We had the Mega CD and it seemed to me that Thames offered unique programming that could help us push the video playback aspect of our hardware and give us media franchises - a lot of which had international appeal - that would give us a whole host of options for the console. There would be video game crossover of course, but in the meantime there would be enough revenue to keep us ticking over. Sega of Japan passed on the idea and that was that, so I decided to move on."

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We dread to think how much that Sonic the Hedgehog trophy is worth these days. Shame no one can find it.

Morris would also part company with Sega following the launch of the Mega CD, and cites his keenness to shake things up as the key reason for his move. "I like creating revolutions and get restless easy," he says. "I wanted a fresh task. Myself and Phil moved on to Sky, challenging the status quo of British television. Then in a later life I was running Ginger Productions with Chris Evans when we were doing stuff like TFI Friday and the Radio One Breakfast Show, then it was onto Football365, one of the big dot-coms in the first wave. Later I co-founded LoveFilm, which has since been bought by Amazon, which leads me to my present role of Director of Marketing at Amazon for Europe. There's a pattern as far as my career is concerned - once I get to the point where I feel comfortable, I move on."

Despite his enviable and glittering CV, Morris is keen to stress that his tenure at Sega was perhaps the most important of his entire career. "The signature of that style of marketing and the lessons learned from those campaigns have been directly responsible for the success of Sky, my contribution to Ginger and my ten year contribution to LoveFilm," he states. "They all owe a debt to what I learned and what I was allowed to execute in the Sega days. When you've got a very clear vision for something it's easy to know if something is right or wrong, and I always used to say if everyone in the business instinctively understood what our position was then it would all fall into place. That fed into our retail advertising and all of the other promotional activity that we did as well; it was '360-degree' and 'CRM' marketing before those terms even existed."

Since the end of the 16-bit era the video game arena has changed almost beyond recognition. Sega and Nintendo, two forces so committed to overtaking each other, have since reconciled and Sony - the company which swept in during the 32-bit period to thoroughly embarrass the old guard - is a dominant power. Morris sees familiar elements in Sony's mid-'90s marketing, which was resolutely focused on popular culture and rebelliousness. "Sony directly picked up from where we left off," he asserts. "Their marketing guy was unashamedly a student of what we'd done at Sega. People talk about Sony working with musical acts and famous dance clubs to gain credibility, but we were doing stuff at the Ministry of Sound in 1993 - we were in that space long before they arrived on the scene." However, while Sega may have laid down the foundations, Sony has built an empire on them which, more or less, has remained solid for the past 20 years, For Alexander, this shows just how far the industry has come since the early '90s; gleeful chaos has given way to stability. "I look at the business now and it's much more professional," he says. "At times we were making things up as we went along, but it was a great period to be involved in."

Morris agrees. "It's a great legacy to have. Brands exist in people's minds - they don't just exist on the side of a bus or in a TV ad. We made sure that - and I hate to use the word - we were seen as the 'cool' brand and that ran through everything we did. It's something I've tried to replicate at all the other roles I've been in. I say this with with the utmost humility, but I feel it was a defining campaign in the video game category."

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