Hype Sheet: Back to the Future With Magnavox

Hype Sheet: Back to the Future With Magnavox

The Pitch With mere days left before the dawn of 2008, there’s precious little time left to celebrate a geek milestone: the silver anniversary of the incomparable Magnavox Odyssey gaming console. This particular ad, however, aired in early 1973, about nine months after the Odyssey’s debut. The oddly unenthusiastic narrator terms the product “the electronic game of the future” as a Brady-like couple sets up their rig—a surprisingly laborious process involving plastic overlays. Man and wife enjoy a few rounds of Magnavox Hockey, Tennis, and (ugh) Geography on their “closed-circuit electronic playground,” twiddling the knobs on their toaster-sized controllers. The spot ends with an exhortation to visit your Magnavox dealer (“he’s listed in the Yellow Pages,” natch). A hilarious fossil of a commercial, but also an early example of how technology companies deal with marketing crises—especially when they’re in the midst of pushing truly novel products.

The Spin The crucial moment in this ad comes early on, when the turtlenecked hubby fits the Hockey template on his TV. Both narrator and caption stress that the Odyssey works with any TV, a vital point given Magnavox's earlier bungling. The very first Odyssey spots in 1972 (unavailable, alas) showed gamers using a Magnavox color TV. This created terrible confusion: Many consumers assumed that the Odyssey was only compatible with Magnavox sets, and color ones at that. So though 80,000-100,000 consoles were sold in 1972 alone, Magnavox was actually somewhat disappointed with the Odyssey's performance; the company feared that, having burned through the early adopters, it would be hard-pressed to capture the interest of mainstream consumers. This commercial, then, is all about reassuring folks that, no, you don't have to ditch your beloved black-and-white RCA in order to enjoy a spirited game of Roulette or Football.

Counterspin Despite a quick remark that the Odyssey is fun for the whole family, this ad shows only an adult couple. And while it's hard to understand the mindset of folks who were alive during Watergate, was the Odyssey such a technological wonder that it could hold the interest of thirtysomethings for hours on end? As with the TI-99/4A previously discussed in this space, the Odyssey seems like it would most enrapture gamers in the grade-school demographic—even if we'd been born in the 1940s instead of the 1970s, it's hard to picture my wife and I settling down for a fun evening of Odyssey Geography. Of course, the console's outrageous price made it the sort of item that you probably didn't want Junior messing around with: The Odyssey (including six program cards) cost $US100, which is around $US480 in today's dollars. And you thought the PS3 was overpriced...

Mission Accomplished Tough to say, as the estimates for Odyssey sales are all over the map. Inventor and vid-game god Ralph Baer claims that 350,000 consoles were sold between 1972 and 1975, when the original Odyssey was replaced by the new (and streamlined) Odyssey 100. Contemporary newspaper accounts, however, put the overall sales at under 300,000. Even if Baer's figure is correct, however, the Odyssey is generally regarded as failure—not because of the technology, but because of the marketing. The initial consumer confusion over compatibility was a huge obstacle; so, too, was Magnavox's insistence on selling its hardware exclusively through Magnavox stores. (Yes, such things existed before the majority of us were born.) Lastly—and most forgivably—the Odyssey's game designers thouhgt that people wanted electronic facsimiles of real-world games, rather than gaming challenges that couldn't be replicated in meatspace. Magnavox corrected this in the late 1970s with its Odyssey 2, which eventually featured such games as Pick Axe Pete and Quest for the Rings, but by then it was too late: The age of the Atari 2600 had arrived.

Hype-O-Meter 4 (out of 10). Too little, too late to save the doomed Odyssey. And a better marketing effort might also have saved Magnavox from its somewhat ignoble fate as a low-end Philips brands (although the company did reportedly make a mint by filing patent lawsuits against the likes of Bally-Midway). I do, however, sorta dig the husband's haircut—very Downhill Racer.

(Huge thanks to Ohbutyet for posting the video.)

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired, a columnist for Slate, and author of the forthcoming Now the Hell Will Start. His Hype Sheet column appears every Friday on Gizmodo.