Playstation – Double Life

         Do not underestimate the power of…                          …the public’s imagination.

Do not underestimate the power of Playstation

The brief for what became Playstation’s International Brand commercial, Double Life, had been sent around the TBWA Network. 


Trevor (Beattie – the Chairman and ECD of the London office at the time) had passed it out to the whole department to try and find a speedy solution as the incumbent agency hadn’t managed to deliver anything Sony were inclined to buy.

My partner and I were keen to make an impression – despite network wide competition.

The proposition was ‘A box of mental stimulation’.

The objective, to raise the profile of the category in an attempt to break out of its core consumer base of geeky pubescent teenage boys by bringing a broader acceptability and dignity that was absent from the sector. We had a few days (including the weekend) to submit our responses.

Our instincts were to ignore the preconceptions of the market and head straight for the high ground.

A lot of the games at the time revolved around a basic number of lives restriction. The three strikes and your out paradigm. We were playing with the notion of what real life would be like if the same rules applied. In other words if you knew you had a few shots at it, how would you approach life. It would certainly free you of your sense of self preservation somewhat. It might conceivably  turn you into the sort  of hard-core extremist that wasn’t afraid of failure – even if failure meant death. If this was reality it would likely translate into and attitude of unfettered, hell-for-leather, go for broke, nothing to lose commitment that would be hard to argue with.

A point of view that would doubtless be the making of a formidable warrior. Or racing driver. Or space pirate, or whatever the order of the day happened to be. When you picture central casting’s version of the devil may care warrior your arrive at the typical Vietnam vet who’s spent so long ‘in country’ they’ve accepted death as inevitable and resigned themselves to it.

As a soldier, for instance, this lack of fear of consequences would give you quite an edge. Things got interesting when you cast against type.

Gamers aren’t Vietnam Vets with scars and a battle-weary thousand yard stare – they are people you meet everyday walking down the street. But via a PlayStation console and games the everyday person can become a battle hardened warrior.

They get to live a thousand lives like they had nothing to lose. That was the beauty of another life to play with.

In the virtual world, as in the analogue world, what that would do to you would be to accumulate a certain wisdom and experience way beyond your years. Beyond your life time. Or lifetimes.

So that’s what we stretched for.

And the more outlandish and unexpected cross casting the better. We wanted people that looked like they could hardly say boo to a goose talking about their proclivity for violence.

A policeman talking about breaking laws without a second thought. That was their crux and the real power of gaming. Not the individual games and graphics but the notion that you can be whoever you want to be.

And being whoever you wanted gave you permission to act out whatever crazy, unsocial, non PC fantasy you so desired and that was just fine. A life in a game was a life without consequences.

If we could have had gotten away with it we’d have had a car-jacking psycho killer vicar.

As it turned out we got a way with quite a lot anyway, and the idea of a life without consequences captured the imagination of a whole new generation of gamers. Several in fact. The ad was shot for TV and Cinema but it’s still clocking up thousands of YouTube views 15 years after it’s bought media has gone off air. It helped that the ad was shot by Frank Budgen. When he first walked in to our boardroom at TBWA he told me the monologue I’d written had caused him to cancel his holiday and return for our meeting. I guess I did ok.

He loved the odd mix of language. I’d thrown in some off the beaten track words and phrases like ‘hoi poloi’ to give the piece a sort of anachronistic vibe. It gave it a timelessness that has served it well over the years and helped it make it in to the Clios hallowed hall of fame in 2007.

And it still feels pretty fresh today.

Respect to Sony for agreeing to go with a piece that simply made for the high ground and believed the public would follow – without the need for game play. Respect to account manager of the time, Gary Lace, for more or less threatening to fall on his sword if the client didn’t concur.

It was a privilege to write a piece to which the public and industry responded so positively. We had requests for the transcript from schools and radio stations and even one or two libraries.

Sometimes the planets align and an opportunity like that comes along.

Then all you have to do is be prepared to believe you can rise to the occasion ever mindful of the warning,

‘Do not underestimate the power of… the public’s imagination.’

Despite having only been made for TV & Cinema and long since gone off air,  the Double-Life commercial continues to clock up tens of thousands of online views per year. 

Setting the record straight.

When Playstation’s Double Life was to be enlisted into the Clio’s Hall of Fame, Mark Tutssel compared the ad to Apple’s, Here’s to the Crazy One’s.

An ad that inspired similar praise and accolade. A popular comparison when I first wrote the piece and  flattering in itself.  The apple ad contains a truly great piece of writing.

There’s only one problem. And I believe there’s a responsibility to point it out. The playing field for this comparison was by no means level. Worse still is that the true writer of the piece was never mentioned let alone attributed.

When the agency responsible was picking up awards for that great ad no-one was very forthcoming with the fact that the apple monologue does not hail from the pen of a copywriter under extremely tight deadlines working on behalf of a brand.

In fact it doesn’t come from a copywriter at all. It comes from the incomparable Jack Kerouac, writing in service of own artistic pursuits with all the attendant freedoms that suggests.

Now I’m flattered to be compared to Jack, even if it has been unwittingly. And as a huge fan of Mr Kerouac I feel compelled to speak up. I’m a writer that has always tried, not necessarily to be original for it’s own sake, but to speak from the heart – which should go some way to ensuring originality in itself.

I couldn’t say Jack would mind his work being adopted as the spirit of Apple. But the lack of attribution?

Well that just seems disrespectful. I know how I would have felt.

But it seems no-one was forthcoming with a mention of Jack’s authorship.  There’s nothing on the ad or in the many references to it posted on line.

In fact there’s plenty of blatant attribution to Steve Jobs. I’m disappointed that plagiarism at that level is allowed to claim equal consideration along side original pieces. I’m just as disappointed that the brand benefitting from that great writer’s artistry saw fit not to acknowledge his posthumous contribution to their fame and fortune.

Particularly a brand as original as Apple.

And especially as the entire reading, delivered by Richard Dreyfuss in one version and Steve Jobs himself in another,  is word for word Jack with an apple logo plonked on the end. Arguably this makes the ad the least innovative piece of creative thinking to ever come out of Apple.

For the record…

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But really I’m most disappointed because it was fellow creatives that took the glory on behalf on another and put a further black mark against our industry’s name.

An industry that when I got into it, the best creatives would have never even put pen to paper if there was even the whiff of the idea they were considering being derivative of something that had gone before. Not just out of respect or professional pride but out of the creative and business sense that originality stands out – and standing out was no 1. in the hierarchy of criteria when it came to creating great creative work.

As Bill Bernbach said, “Great creative work makes great business sense”. You will of course draw your own conclusions, as you should.

It seems fitting to hand the final comment over to Jack.

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In memory of American novelist and poet, Jack Kerouac, March 12, 1922 – October 21, 1969.
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Now read the Johnnie Walker story.