What Nintendo Can Teach Us About Advertising For the Meme-Generation

The debut trailer for the Nintendo Switch was a runaway success. It shattered Nintendo’s record for YouTube views (20 million and counting) and rekindled interest in a Nintendo home console after their previous lackluster effort, the Wii U.

But when I first saw the trailer, I wondered what went wrong.

Nintendo was seemingly going for aspiration: in all six vignettes, the characters dressed well, owned expensive houses, traveled, flirted effortlessly, played pick-up sports, attended roof parties, and competed on the world stage. But it all seemed phony, like a Martian’s idea of how an urban socialite might behave. Would someone really bring their console along for a dog walk? Or ignore their two friends upfront on a road trip?

I chalked up the difference to a lack of empathy with a dash of lost in translation. Nintendo knows gamers better than anyone, but they don’t know pick-up basketball players. And their Japanese parent forced odd creative compromises with their American agency; happens all the time.

My colleague had a different theory. She posited that it was perhaps a failure of comedy. Nintendo was going for an “unleash your inner addict” message but couldn’t quite pull it off, driving the whole thing into a Westworldian uncanny valley.

After a few more viewings, something didn’t sit right with either theory and the trailer morphed into an advertising Shrodinger’s Cat.

If it was trying to be earnest and aspirational, then why were the characters not just fake, but aggressively anti-social? For example, in one scene a woman attends a lavish roof party, but instead of mingling or enjoying the party, she brings along the Switch to continue gaming.

But if it was trying to be silly with a winking self-awareness, then where were the punch lines? And why intersperse vignettes that played straight?

While we’re at it, why does the whole thing open like a horror movie, with an abandoned city, muffled audio, and a sewer grate spewing steam?

The trailer wasn’t a throwaway social media asset after all, it was the most important video that Nintendo has released in years. What was going on?

And then the aha! moment: Nintendo created this trailer for the meme generation.

The established method for creating meme-friendly advertising is to go for over-the-top goofiness and hope it sticks. Think the Old Spice Guy or The Most Interesting Man in the World. This method is risky because if you get it wrong you come across as trying too hard or you might overwhelm your actual product. It makes sense that Nintendo wouldn’t want to crowd out the Switch reveal with shenanigans.

But there might be another method for creating meme-friendly communication. And that’s to embrace the fact that memes are most successful when the subject isn’t in on the joke.

A recent example is Ken Bone. Here was a strange figure in a serious setting who lacked self-awareness; the perfect meme fodder. But if we found out that Ken Bone wore a bright red sweater on purpose for the attention, then the fun dissolves — he was the prankster and not the prank.

“Imperfectly interesting trumps perfectly boring any day”

Perhaps Nintendo created their launch trailer with a dual purpose. They made it aspirational for the masses, who might see the trailer only once or twice, but included “unintentional” bizarre moments for their hardcore fans to run with. The emergence of an entire Reddit community about one of the characters in the trailer might support this theory.

So was the trailer a failure of authenticity, a failure of comedy, or a masterclass in producing viral advertising? Whatever it was, and it’s too fun to keep the mystery alive than ask anyone at their agency, it was interesting — and imperfectly interesting trumps perfectly boring any day.