In early 1997, Nintendo ran the following Game Boy Pocket ad in Loaded, FHM, and Viz magazines:
We see a woman tied to a bed with a [insert emotion here] look on her face. While the agency responsible for the ad (Leo Burnett) filled in that blank with “frustrated” (due to being ignored), many readers found the word “terrified” to be more appropriate. After several complaints, the ASA (Advertising Standards Authority) asked Nintendo to withdraw the ad.
Crispin Reed, account director for Nintendo at Leo Burnett, defended the ad, saying, “When you look at [our] ad in the context of the environment it appeared in, it’s exactly in keeping with the editorial pages which, I would say, go further than we did. The nature of the complaints misinterpreted our intent — to show the woman as frustrated, not terrified.”
Clearly, the advertisers were aiming at a male demographic (hence the magazines in which the ad ran), and the message was that the Game Boy Pocket is so much fun that men will forget their sexy girlfriends and leave them tied to the bed in a state of pre-mega-kinky-sex while playing round after round of Tetris.
The strangest thing about all this is that they could have sent almost the exact same message if the woman weren’t tied up. At least that way, the implied sex would be explicitly consensual. By adding the bondage element, readers begin to wonder if this poor woman is being held against her will in some messed up kidnapping situation. The implied sex, then, becomes a heinous crime, and the “joke” becomes unfunny pretty quickly.
Several other visual elements serve to reinforce this uncomfortable idea. The unkempt bedroom scene and lack of blankets or comforter on the bed make this seem more like a kidnapper’s den than a bedroom shared by a loving couple. And the phone next to the bed (it’s sort of there in the shadows if you look closely) just feels plain creepy. It’s hard to imagine that whoever set up this scene had kinky romance in mind rather than a crime scene.
It’s not like the Leo Burnett agency didn’t eventually figure this all out. They created the following Game Boy Advance SP ad, which ran in 2003:
While you can make a pretty irrefutable argument that the ad is sexist, it’s at least implying a consensual sexual relationship. The sheets are satin, the woman’s embrace seems loving and (moderately) genuine (for an advertisement), and, most importantly, no one is tied to anything.
Video game magazine ads have a history of appealing to “particular” tastes, but in the Game Boy Pocket ad above, lines are crossed that simply shouldn’t be. And, in this case, the ASA agrees.