As most people who grew up playing video games in the 90s know, the Sega Genesis had a couple of mid-life peripherals that were released to increase the console’s capabilities prior to the launch of the Sega Saturn. Let’s talk about the Sega 32X and its very strange marketing plan used to spread the word.
Prior to the debut of the infomercial, titled Absolutely Rose Street, Sega used its own magazine, Sega Visions, to generate some hype about the show. “Sega Goes Hollywood With a New TV Show,” the magazine read. Not only that, but Billboard Magazine ran an article about the show while it was in production.
Time has proven that this strategy was an unsuccessful one, considering the 32X is universally considered to be a commercial failure. Despite this, Absolutely Rose Street is a fascinating and hilarious piece of gaming history. So how did the Sega 32X stack up against late night juggernauts like Tony Little and Ron Popeil? Let’s look at a few reasons why this is perhaps the greatest infomercial ever made.
It’s an infomercial disguised as a scripted TV series.
Just in case the constant product placement isn’t obvious enough.
Even though the opening seconds indicate that “the following is a paid advertisement by Sega of America,” the rest of the show makes no attempt to disclose this fact to you. Absolutely Rose Street has an opening segment with a theme song and a title screen, and the program itself has built-in commercial breaks (more on those later).
From there, it feels as if you are watching a pilot for a television program and not your usual infomercial. There are characters and an episode-long plot; there are no breaks in the program to flash a 1-800 number at you. The idea was that young people up at 3 AM watching TV during Thanksgiving and Christmas break would see a show about people their age and opt to watch that as opposed to a Susan Powter infomercial.
It has an insane story.
The early 90s in picture form.
So what was Absolutely Rose Street about, anyway? The short version is that it’s part Wayne’s World and part Degrassi, with nearly every moment dedicated to tricking you into buying something that would be obsolete in a year.
Video Game Ephemera, the ones who uncovered this long-lost piece of history and released it on the internet, say this program is about “Game Beat, a cable TV show hosted by Christina Savage and her hotheaded sort-of boyfriend Max Jackson. As the story begins, the station manager is screening an episode of Game Beat for producer Joe Whitehead. He asks Joe to take charge of the show and polish it up to please a potential sponsor. But Joe has other plans: he wants to cancel Game Beat and give its time slot to Styling With Stella, a show about fashion tips hosted by Joe’s girlfriend, Stella Lightwood.” And from there, hijinks ensue.
The crew stumbles around, wondering if they will find that one product to give their show energy and save it from being canceled. While scrambling for ideas, the female lead says that she hears rumors of Doom, the “biggest story in gaming,” coming to the Sega 32X. Max clarifies that the 32X is a “turbo charger” for your Sega Genesis. The story ends with the producer falling to his knees and shouting “Segaaaaaaaa!!” while his love interest gets in a car to leave.
Damn you, games journalism!
Not only does this show have a full cast of fictional characters, but a few real game designers make cameos as well! Sam Nicholson of Tomcat Alley and Midnight Raiders fame, as well as American McGee (American McGee’s Alice and Scrapland) show up to give “interviews” to the cast of Game Beat.
It had commercial breaks within it.
The Sega Genesis was the Voltron of game consoles.
Infomercials themselves are long commercials for a product, but this one took that concept to another level entirely. As previously stated, the show presents itself as a scripted television program with characters and a story, but to further emphasize the point that this was a “TV show” and not an infomercial, the show had built in commercial breaks. Really, it’s the Inception of commercials.
There were two types of ads used during these commercial breaks; Sega product commercials and public service announcements. First, we’ll look at the Sega stuff.
There are three commercials within this show that are designed around pushing the Sega hardware. One of them takes place in a morgue, where a young man is called in to identify a body. It’s supposed to embody the Super NES, Sega’s primary competition at the time. They make jokes about it being “dead” because it doesn’t have features like the Sega CD and 32X. Everyone knows what it takes to make a hip console in 1994 — $500 in extra hardware!
Does the cast enter the infomercial Hall of Fame? Do you even need to ask?
There are also three public service announcements sprinkled throughout the show, and the first is one of the most memorable 90s PSAs to me. It features a kid on a basketball court being approached by a drug dealer asking what he needs. The kid then proceeds to tell him about all the things a kid needs to be doing instead of doing drugs. The drug dealer walks away in disgust.
The last PSA is my favorite of the bunch: an entry from the Crash Test Dummies ad campaign! These commercials would always feature the dummies destroying cars in dramatic fashion and telling the viewer (often while their bodies were mangled from the accident) “Don’t be a dummy, buckle your safety belt!”
“Don’t be a dummy, buy the Incredible Crash Dummies for Sega Genesis!”
That doesn’t even include the near-constant references to Sega products and games throughout the show’s story. From Virtua Racing to Doom to Sonic 3 and Knuckles, you were almost constantly being reminded of something in Sega’s arsenal.
Was this advertising campaign a success? Well, the 32X was only able to sell around 665,000 units globally (compared to the 30+ million Genesis units sold). To make matters worse, the Sega Saturn launched in the US only six months after the 32X. Trying to sell people an expensive new platform on top of an over-priced, underutilized peripheral for your dated console isn’t the best strategy. Even though Absolutely Rose Street failed in its effort to make the 32X a hit, it’s hard to deny that this was a pretty unique and creative marketing campaign.
To close out the piece in Billboard Magazine, the author notes that if there had been a demand for it, more episodes of Absolutely Rose Street would’ve been ordered. I think it’s safe to say that insomniacs in 1994 were more interested in buying a Gazelle.
Article by contributor Tim Wiley. You can read his other stuff over at Retro Game Dad!