Sega of America brings zap 'em to the slice 'em and dice 'em realm of infomercials today with a half-hour pitch for its new video game adapter. It is the first time a toy manufacturer has aimed a lengthy commercial at kids.
The infomercial is part of Sega's $60-million pre-Christmas marketing blitz for the $150 adapter and a collection of new video games for its Genesis system. It begins airing on CNBC today and on cable and broadcast stations in the nation's 20 largest TV markets over the next four weeks.
Infomercials for toys are rare because federal rules limit the content and timing of commercials directed at children. But Sega and its agency, Fraser & Associates Advertising of Los Angeles, say the infomercial complies with Federal Communications Commission restrictions. They say it targets teen-agers, not younger children, and airs at times when youngsters don't typically watch TV.
Those steps aren't likely to satisfy consumer activists who believe children are likely to see the infomercial anyway.
"When it's on is beside the point, unless it's on at midnight," said Peggy Charren, founder of Boston-based Action for Children's Television. "We all know every 10-year-old would give their left arm to have a Sega set. Of course this appeals to children."
William White Jr., Sega marketing vice president, said the company chose an infomercial to plug the 32X adapter because there is confusion about the device. The adapter converts the 16-bit Genesis video game player into a more powerful 32-bit machine.
But Sega and its competitors have already announced plans to introduce 64-bit machines next fall that will eclipse the souped-up 32X Genesis game players in speed and graphic capability.
"People are asking, 'Should I buy anything, since new stuff is coming out next year?' That kind of confusion freezes sales," White said. "We're trying to tell people they can enjoy the next level of gaming now without having to wait for the next generation of machines."
Sega and its rivals are trying to create some holiday video game excitement at a time when the industry has little new to offer. Rather than upgrade its machines, for example, Nintendo of America is touting more sophisticated games for its 16-bit units. The company last month mailed 2.2 million owners of its Super Nintendo Entertainment System videocassettes featuring the new "Donkey Kong Country" game.
"This is a year when improvements are incremental and there is nothing revolutionary," said John G. Taylor, an analyst with L. H. Alton & Co. in Portland, Ore. "The companies are trying to maintain interest when consumers can only look forward to the big improvements in performance next year."
But Sega believes its 32X machine eventually will catch on with teen-agers who can't afford--or can't persuade their parents to buy--the 64-bit machines, which are expected to initially cost upward of $250.
"We've found that for the 12- to 17-year-old target market, the glass ceiling is $199," said Sega's White. "When you don't get below $200 for a teen-ager, you don't have a mass-market product."
The Sega 32X infomercial unfolds much like a TV soap opera. The cast of fictitious "Game Beat" learns that their TV show may be canceled and replaced by a hair-styling program. To keep themselves on the air, the intrepid "Game Beat" crew does a ground-breaking report on the Sega adapter and several of the new games.
Although a disclaimer noting that it is a paid advertisement appears at beginning and end, the infomercial has the pace of a television program. It is interrupted by six commercials, three for Sega products and three public service announcements.
The infomercial is set in Venice Beach, because it "typifies hip, cool and freedom, especially to people who live outside the West Coast," said Renee White Fraser, president of Fraser Associates. The "Game Beaters"--three men and a woman, all in their 20s--sport tattoos and body jewelry and live together in a loft.
"The infomercial allows us to create a context that reflects the life of a consumer," Fraser said. "What 18-year-old boy wouldn't love to do that--start his own show, write about the games?
"We can create a level of seduction you can't get in a 30-second commercial," she said.
The Sega infomercial is atypical in that it doesn't ask viewers to buy anything. In that way, it avoids pitfalls experienced by Positive Response TV, a Sherman Oaks-based infomercial producer that pitched its own video game cartridge for the Nintendo system two years ago.
Chairman Michael Levy said the company was swamped with calls from children who did not have the credit card required to buy the game. Levy said Positive Response pulled the infomercial after three weeks and sold excess inventory to another company, losing more than $100,000 on the project.
Sega is asking viewers to pick up the telephone, though. The infomercial encourages viewers to call an 800 number to vote on whether "Game Beat" should remain on the air. The telephone poll allows Sega to learn the identities of callers, who will later be surveyed to see if they have purchased a 32X.
Sega isn't the only company to plug a toy in an infomercial this holiday season. Mattel is running an infomercial pitching collector Barbie dolls based on characters from "Gone With the Wind" for $225 each. A Mattel spokeswoman said the infomercial is aimed at adults and doesn't air when children are expected to tune in.
Advertising executive Fraser said Sega is also scheduling its infomercial outside the so-called "children's hours," traditionally from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays, and on Saturday mornings. But Sega is clearly targeting a younger audience than Mattel, although there is some disagreement on exactly who the Sega audience is.
Fraser said Sega is trying to reach young men between the ages of 15 and 24. Sega executive White, meanwhile, said the target audience is younger, between ages 12 and 17. The age of the target audience could be significant if the infomercial comes under review. The FCC considers children to be all those age 12 and under.
The agency's rules prohibit broadcasters from airing commercials for a toy during a program about the toy. For example, commercials for Power Rangers toys can't air during the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers program.
Consumer activist Charren believes the Sega program violates federal rules. "I would expect that once it airs, there will be a challenge," she said.
No broadcaster or cable station has refused to air the infomercial, said Fraser, an indication that stations believe it complies with government rules.