When I was a little upper middle class hell spawn, I had a natural inclination toward anything that cost large sums of my parents’ money. I had learned that a person’s love was directly proportional to the amount of money they were willing to spend on someone, which is why I was a sucker for every passing fad I could force my parents to get their hands on. Furbies, Crazy Bones, Pogs. You name it, I had it stuffed in the back of a closet somewhere collecting dust. As a burgeoning nerd though, no money sink was greater than my obsession with video games. I was an avid Nintendo loyalist, owning both a Nintendo 64 and a Game Boy and spending the majority of my formative years playing both. Naturally, I was a Nintendo Power subscriber, and every month I would comb through the magazine with the same kind of solemn reverence an old man reads the Wall Street Journal.
I don’t know if it was because of my subscription to Nintendo Power or because some marketing research firm had been following my obsessive toy buying habits, but one day I received a mysterious VHS in the mail. This video tape offered an exclusive preview of a video game phenomenon that was about to sweep the nation. I had never even heard of what the video was promoting before, but after watching it once, then twice, then approximately a hundred times after, I realized I had just been let in on the ground floor of the hottest gaming craze of my young life.
That VHS was A Sneak Peek at Pokémon, and it is a master class on turning little kids into cash spewing drones.
If you weren’t one of the fortunate few to receive a copy of this thing when it was sent out like some sort of strategically deployed bioweapon, you can check out the first part here and the second here. It’s basically a fifteen-minute -ong commercial for Pokémon, but it’s so much more than that. This is not just some 30-second spot pushing a hot new toy during Saturday morning cartoons. This is a propaganda film. It’s not selling Pokémon the video game, it’s selling Pokémon the lifestyle.
Sure, if you watch it now it’s a painfully obvious ploy to move toys. But consider watching this thing as an unsuspecting child. It literally opens with some kid telling you what you’re about to witness is a cultural phenomenon that’s about to take America by the balls. It’s not just a TV show, it’s not just a Game Boy game, it’s “loads of other cool things.” I was 10. I fucking loved cool things. At that point in my existence, cool things were the only things I’m capable of defining myself by. I was hooked in the first 15 seconds, but then it kicked in with clips of this kid flying with ghosts and fire birds set to some ‘80s power ballad with lyrics like “You’ve got the power right in your hands,” and “A world of magic at your command.” Whatever this video was promising, it was no less than complete dominion over an army of badass monsters. I had no clue what a Pokémon was, but at that point I wanted every last one of them.
The video introduces the game’s core concept through a mix of clips from the cartoon and live-action actors who we can only imagine thought were going to be doing something much better with their lives. We’re told by his “Aunt Hillary” that the star of the TV show is Ash, a firebrand of a 10 year old who dreams of becoming a Pokémon master. And, of course, the only way to become a Pokémon master is to catch all the Pokémon.
First off, no it isn’t. To become a Pokémon master, you have to beat the Elite Four. Nobody is going to think you’re a Pokémon master just because you’ve got Mr. Mime. Second, how did this even get through the FCC? I know the “gotta catch ‘em all” catchphrase has been made fun of to death in that South Park Chinpokomon episode and CollegeHumor video, but seriously consider it for a moment. They won’t let cigarette companies run ads on television, but apparently it was legal in the ‘90s to allow companies to send promotional videos that exist in the moral gray area between advertising and brainwashing directly into children’s homes. In practice, that’s one step above a guy luring kids into his unmarked van with candy.
The most galling thing about this commercial is just how transparent it is. It just straight up tells you to buy everything. The most telling moment comes when we’re introduced to the Team Rocket boss, who we’re told by the veritable Woodward and Bernstein duo of Ash’s cousins “wants to steal Pikachu away from Ash to fulfill their ... diabolical plan for total domination.” How that’s supposed to work isn’t exactly clear, but what’s important is the fact that this menacing shadowy figure informs the viewer in no uncertain terms that unless they give their life entirely over to Pokémon, he’s going to completely destroy that adorable yellow mouse the video just showed a few seconds ago. The same one you see Ash lay his life on the line to save. Whatever a Pikachu is, it’s so important that a massive criminal organization will do everything in its power to have it, and a 10-year-old boy will risk death just to keep it out of harm’s way.
I just imagine there having been a group of Nintendo execs anxiously wringing their hands during a meeting with some ad agency going, “How do we make kids want this thing?” before some smooth Don Draper type proclaims “Make them? No, we tell them.” And then he bangs a secretary and my family loses a quarter of their income feeding my crippling Pokémon addiction.
Needless to say, the video worked. I eagerly tuned in when the anime premiered. I bought Pokémon Blue bright and early when it came out. I loaded up on enough Pokémon cards to fill two huge ass binders, despite not having the first clue about how to play the trading card game. I bought action figures and collectible Burger King gold plated cards. I nearly drove my mother to the verge of tears in my desperate, maddening search for a copy of Pokémon Snap the week it was released. All in all, with the amount of money I spent on Pokémon as a kid I could have probably made a sizable dent in my college loan payments already.
As effective as it was though, the video, and by extension the whole marketing blitzkrieg behind Pokémon, obscured the very thing that was responsible for it – the game. The fact that you played Pokémon almost seemed like an afterthought when compared to all the other ways you could feed the franchise money. After losing interest in Pokémon when all the hype died down, it took me years to rediscover the series as a solid, addicting, and above all else fun RPG. It took playing Emerald on my DS, removed from the “gotta catch ‘em all” fanaticism of my childhood, to genuinely enjoy the video game. A Sneak Peek at Pokémon was my introduction to the ceaseless money making machine that was the Pokémon franchise, and it took forcibly removing the series from its cold blooded claws to actually enjoy the game.