Sony's PSP Uses Smart Aleck to Lay the Hurt on Smartphones

Young Marcus Rivers Is the Face of a Winning Effort to Attract 12- to 14-Year-Olds

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YORK, Pa. ( -- "Marcus don't play that." That's Marcus Rivers, Sony PlayStation's smack-talking front man for its handheld PSP device, referring to mobile-phone games.

NOT PLAYING AROUND: Since Sony's latest PSP campaign with trash-talking Marcus Rivers (played by young actor Bobb'e J. Thompson) began in mid-June, sales for the hand-held gaming device have climbed 20% each week.
NOT PLAYING AROUND: Since Sony's latest PSP campaign with trash-talking Marcus Rivers (played by young actor Bobb'e J. Thompson) began in mid-June, sales for the hand-held gaming device have climbed 20% each week.
In online videos and TV ads, the teenage Marcus or another actor holds an iPhone up to the camera and then proceeds to blast app games. Marcus calls the Wastebasket game app, for example, "ridiculous," adding, "It shoulda been called wastin' my three minutes cuz I'll never get that time back -- or wastin' my mama's hard-earned money." In another, he derides the game "Hold It" by saying, "All you do is hold this button for as long as you can because that's your punishment for bein' dumb enough to buy this game." And in another he bashes the phone itself with: "That ain't built for big-boy games. That's built for texting your grandma and calling your girl."

The tagline for the effort is "Step Up Your Game," and that's just what Sony is hoping the marketing will do for PSP, a longstanding No. 2 in the traditional handheld gaming market to its main competitor, Nintendo DS. There have been more than 17 million PSPs and 43 million DS units sold to date, according to NPD Group.

But even more pressing is the competition Sony and Nintendo both face from the mobile-phone market, particularly Apple. Last year, iPhone OS games grabbed a 19% share of total portable games software revenue, up from 5% in 2008 -- mostly at the expense of the traditional hand-helds. PSP fell from a 20% to 11% share of software revenue, while DS dropped from 75% to 70%, as calculated by app analyst firm Flurry.

"In the mobile-phone space, the biggest competition is for time and money. Everyone needs a mobile phone [but] a game machine is a luxury. On top of that, the prices for mobile-phone games are very cheap; $9.99 would be a premium game. There is major competition for consumer time and money across all platforms," said David Cole, analyst DFC Intelligence. "They need to be worried about any competing device for consumer time and money -- phones, iPad, competing mobile devices, console systems etc."

Sony is hoping Marcus' fresh face and smart-aleck attitude will appeal to its revised target audience of 12- to 14-year-olds. Research last year showed Sony that its audience had gotten young quickly: from an average age of 28 when the PSP launched in 2005 down to the mid-teen ages by 2009, said John Koller, director-hardware marketing at Sony Computer Entertainment America.

"We saw the [new] prime target as 12-to-14-year-olds who are graduating from devices like the DS and even the Leapster, but before they're getting into console gaming or carrying smartphones," he said. "We really wanted someone aspirational for them. ... We came up with Marcus Rivers, a know-it-all PSP gamer who's passionate about the brand and about why the PSP is better for gaming."

"I thought Sony made a mistake in not targeting that 12- to 14-year-old audience early on," said Mr. Cole. "These are consumers looking for a mobile device, and in many cases they don't have mobile phones or have very restricted mobile phones. So, yes, it makes sense, (but) the question is, are they too late?"

So far, the ads are working, according to Mr. Koller, who noted that the rate of sales since the campaign begun in mid-June have climbed 20% higher each week. Planning for more Marcus ads is already under way.

Along with the new spokeskid, Sony is also trying to appeal to younger teens -- and their parents who still hold the purse strings -- with its June-announced PSP Favorites, a value-line of games at $9.99 each. There are currently about 25 titles in the collection, with classics and preteen-friendly titles such as "Burnout Legends" and "Sims."

The PSP campaign, created with PlayStation agency Deutsch, Los Angeles, is a mostly TV media effort, but includes an online video component and some online advertising featuring Marcus. The media buy includes afternoon time slots and sports, and has been particularly successful on Viacom channels such as MTV and Nick at Nite. Those buys are a departure for traditional PSP TV, which had focused on late-night TV and prime time to target the mid-20s crowd.

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