Throughout the decades, video game companies have had many advertising campaigns. Whether it was the “Wii would like to play” men or the infamous seizure-inducing Sega CD ads, the gaming culture and its casual gamer outskirts have been constantly exposed to video game advertising. It’s become both a legacy and a circus, where companies have repeatedly tried multiple ad campaigns to find that perfect storm of product marketability and consumer approval. But when gaming advertising was deep into this generation, Sony brought out a goofy, tie-wearing VP named Kevin Butler and the advertising standard made a serious paradigm shift.
Kevin Butler, portrayed by actor Jerry Lambert (Neighbors From Hell, Sons and Daughters), first appeared in 2009 in an advertisement for MLB 09: The Show, offering a comedic portrayal of the Sony image, while also keeping the humor remarkably high-brow. What originally seemed like a one-time thing quickly grew. Butler’s appearance in future Playstation commercials for games like MAG, LittleBigPlanet 2, and Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception showed that this one-time thing was much more than that. Butler added a refined charisma to Sony’s advertising image, one where the corporate elements were perverted and didn’t seem alien to the consumer audience. Butler earned a number of accolades, including a role as a DLC character in LittleBigPlanet Karting and getting a sandwich named after him by National Public Radio (with the sandwich being mentioned by Butler in an earlier Playstation advertisement).
However, Jerry Lambert’s appearance in a Bridgestone commercial where the actor was playing a Nintendo Wii system essentially crippled Lambert’s future as the witty and multi-faceted Sony VP. Since Lambert had earned a reputation and cultural identity for his portrayal of Butler, seeing him playing a direct competitor’s system was sure to raise some eyebrows, many of which were from Sony higher-ups. In an effort to prevent confusion regarding Lambert’s role as Butler and the Playstation brand, Sony sued Lambert in 2012. Afterward, the long-running Kevin Butler commercials ceased to air on television and through online ads (including the now vacant Kevin Butler Youtube account) and Lambert would never be seen portraying Butler again.
So what’s the big deal? Why is Kevin Butler such an important figure in video game culture today? Well, one important thing to note is the time context. Sony actually had a lot of trouble before the PS3 launch, with their indecisive advertising going back as far as 2005. They had already run a series of terrible PSP ads featuring squirrels and balls of lint with racially derogatory behavior and speech patterns, earning a huge amount of negative criticism from gamers and non-gamers alike. The early Playstation 3 advertisements were also poorly received, featuring empty rooms, stuttering visual effects and some creepy uses of dolls. The early years of the Playstation 3 were a struggle for Sony, but ultimately, the release of a number of well-received games like Uncharted 2: Among Thieves got the company to also reevaluate its cryptic and disturbing PS3 advertising campaign. Sony had to make an image for Playstation, one that didn’t seem overly cryptic and monotone, while also not sinking down to racial stereotypes just to prove how “hip” their products were.
Was this funny? No. Was it racist? Well…
A major moment for Butler was his appearance at the Sony press conference at E3 2010. When he first came out, Butler received a huge amount of applause. Gamers already knew who he was, but his not-so-subtle jab at Microsoft’s Kinect presentation earlier that week was met with laughter. If it was a developer (even one in-house for Sony) who took a shot at Microsoft, that particular comment would probably have been received with less enthusiasm. Butler’s playful image gave him the opportunity to do what the professional spokespeople for Sony could not: act unprofessionally. But in a way, it was professional. Sony was able to bypass the criticism of direct and intentional jokes toward Microsoft by giving Butler the call to do it. If Jack Tretton did it, he’d look like a total jerk, but when Butler did it, it was just plain funny.
“Am I crazy or did I see 100 French acrobats dancing around the other night?”
Sony’s image reformation (at least from a promotional standpoint) benefited immensely from Kevin Butler. In an industry full of companies so hell bent on making themselves look stalwart and monolithic, Kevin Butler showed that Sony wasn’t afraid to approach gamers’ needs on a personal level. Kevin Butler wasn’t just a funny spokesman for Playstation; he was also a perfect analogy for the kind of image shift that Sony was going through and desperately needed at the time. After the serious launch of the PS3, Sony aimed to recapture gamer confidence by loosening up and treating consumers not as customers but as gamers. These gamers were avid watchers of viral marketing on Youtube, so it only made logical sense that Kevin Butler was an answer to that growing culture of gamers. Sony’s all-business image seen during the PS3 launch was waning, gathering influence from gamers’ more relaxed and comedic sensibilities. It was a brilliant move and it worked out immensely for both gamers and Sony.
After Butler’s “death”, video game advertisements have regressed back to the same stale form that we’ve grown to loathe. It’s all about the over-the-top gameplay scenes, the serious and minimalist tones, and the complete lack of playfulness. It’s discouraging to see this, especially from Sony, who had something so potent and refreshing in the Kevin Butler commercials. While Butler was a fictional Sony figure, he had the same kind of charisma as someone like Stephen Colbert. His character was tuned for the nature of advertising in this viral age.
Kevin Butler was the closest thing Sony ever did to making the Move look cool.
So why haven’t we seen another figure like Kevin Butler? Well, at the moment, the serious nature of the medium is fueled by the next generation. No one really wants to laugh along with a comedic figure when their so full of anticipation and cautious skepticism toward a next-gen lineup. Sony in particular isn’t really flaunting a relaxed pose. They’re letting their products do the talking instead of their commercial image, which at the moment, would actually be rather beneficial. Microsoft probably needs this kind of image more than Sony, being that their Xbox 360 successor is still being circled by questionable speculation on always-online and their neutered relationship with the lighthearted and more humor-focused indie developers. Like Sony, though, Microsoft is trying to show off tech and support instead of give themselves an image reform at this moment in time. Nintendo, however, could benefit immensely from a character like Kevin Butler, someone who can offer a message while also being funny and likable. This lack of a Bulter-esque figure also shows Nintendo’s hesitance to use those viral comedy sensibilities. Tradition is okay, but sometimes that next big step can mean more than tradition ever could.
Regardless of the situation, the loss of Kevin Butler was a harsh hit to the video game advertising world. He toned down the impenetrability of the medium, making it approachable and remarkably funny. He made the professional look unprofessional. It was amazing.
And yes, I’m still bitter that Kevin Butler wasn’t a playable character in Playstation All-Stars: Battle Royale.
Got something to say about Kevin Butler or the future of video game advertising? Remember to comment below!
It began with a hand-me-down Sega Genesis from his cousin and since then, he's been fascinated with video games. He enjoys the blissful platforming of the 16-bit era and the rich adventures of the 64-bit era. Favorite games include Metroid Prime, Banjo-Tooie, and practically every 16-bit Sonic the Hedgehog title.
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