For much of video-game history, long before Robert Downey Jr. starred in Call of Duty ads, a central assumption was that pale, zit-ridden losers played the games in their parents' darkened basements. The key artifact here is the legendary "Zelda Rap," so jarringly nerdy and blindingly white that it's still the subject of memes to this day. But not all video-game ads preyed on lazy and inaccurate stereotypes.
Consider "Nobody's Hotter Than Atari This Summer," an early-1980s promotion for the new 5200 console, the disappointing follow-up to the iconic 2600, which introduced Pong to living rooms around America. "Nobody's Hotter" is like few previous game ads. No sticky basement couches and dweeb eyeglasses for this ad, an aesthetic crossroads of "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," Porky's" and "Tron." Or something.
What stands out now, more than the wowie-zowie special effects or the suggestive song and risque action, is that the kids in this Atari ad (which we're guessing was created by DDB, its consumer agency of record around this time, although DDB wasn't able to confirm) are cool.
You know how I can tell they're cool? For starters, they're at the beach, which was the locus of all cool things in the '80s (for more information, see the beach-party scene in "The Karate Kid.") Second, they possess flawless executions of the dominant hairstyles of the day -- side-ponies, feathered middle parts and Depp-doused curls. Cool, right? They wear shades that L-train riders to Brooklyn could still rock today, which is cooler than even they could know. And these kids are also rather tan, quite toned and possibly magic. When they plug the console into the sand, it works, projecting the game on the sky. Cool -- and sustainable, too.
Perhaps the most indisputable evidence, though, is the very presence of the female of the species, which may have been the first suggestion that video games might not pose problems for the perpetuation of humanity. The ad features not one but two bikini-clad girls who, back in 1983, would have been considered "real bettys." They rock in with a boom box, but be assured, this is no "lame jam." Busting out the console, they plug it into the sand and get right down to some serious seaside gaming. They are, in fact, so into it that they put on their best o-faces and in the background, we get lyrics like "You know deep down that it's gonna be a hummer / but nobody's hotter than Atari this summer."
Everyone, from the lifeguard to the African-American couple, flocks around them as they work those joysticks -- a tad roughly perhaps -- and Space Invaders unfolds in the sky. Rad! But then just as excitement is at its frothiest, the girls pull the plug and saunter off the beach. The message: You're maybe not a complete loser if you play video games, but, let's be real, you're also probably not going to be getting any. So why not upgrade to the Atari 5200?
This wasn't a message America was ready for. The 5200, meant to compete with arguably more advanced rivals like Intellivision and ColecoVision, was discontinued by 1984, just two years after launch, after racking up disappointing sales. Blame shouldn't rest on the ad, though.
One big problem: The 2600's games weren't compatible with the 5200, which also wasn't considered a big enough technological leap to excite people as much those beachgoers were. Then there was the price tag of $270, which in today's dollars would be $647. That's more than three times the price of an Xbox, though, as far as I know, the Xbox won't run on sand.
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