Game Boy
Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

Nintendo, as we all know, has something of a reputation for being family-focused. This was established back in the days of the NES, when the company was fiercely protective of its image and would even go as far as to insist publishers censor their games to ensure they wouldn't cause offence.

While the Nintendo of today now serves a much wider demographic (as is evidenced by the seemingly unstoppable flood of terrible 'hentai' games on the Switch eShop), Nintendo still maintains a somewhat squeaky-clean veneer when it comes to advertising and promotion.

During the '90s, however, it tried something different. This was the decade of excess; of 'in-your-face' marketing, 'lads' mags and much, much more. In the UK, in particular, the rise of male-focused publications like Loaded, Maxim and FHM fuelled a misogynistic tidal wave of raunchy adverts, each trying to be more shocking and suggestive than the last – and even Nintendo got involved.

In 1997, it ran an advertising campaign for the Game Boy Pocket which aimed to promote the handheld console's ability to distract consumers from other tasks. Created by advertising firm Leo Burnett, one single-page advert shows a dog waiting sadly next to its empty food bowl, with the implication being that its owner is too invested in their shiny new Game Boy to perform even the most basic of pet-related maintenance.

While we don't know if that particular example generated any complaints, another of Leo Burnett's Game Boy advertisements certainly did. In this case, a woman is shown tied to a bed in her underwear, with an expression on her face which could suggest frustration, but could also hint at fear. The same tagline – "Seriously distracting" is used, along with an image of the Game Boy Pocket. The Advertising Standards Authority received four complaints against the ad, and promptly asked Nintendo to withdraw it.

Neo Geo
SNK used the same tactic a few years beforehand in this infamous US print ad — Image: SNK

Crispin Reed, account director for Nintendo at Leo Burnett, was keen to stress that the advert in question ran in magazines aimed at men rather than children – the likes of FHM, Loaded and Viz. "When you look at [our] ad in the context of the environment it appeared in, it's exactly in keeping with the editorial pages which, I would say, go further than we did. The nature of the complaints misinterpreted our intent - to show the woman as frustrated, not terrified."

However, the ASA claimed that wasn't a valid excuse. "Advertisers have to be aware that the audiences they are trying to target aren't the only people who will see the advert," Chris Reed of the ASA told EDGE magazine at the time. "If other people do see it and it's going to cause offence, then that's one of the criteria for us looking into it."

Nintendo couldn't be accused of breaking new ground when it came to using sex to sell video games – there were numerous other prior examples, including SNK's infamous "I remember when he couldn't keep his hands off me!" advert – but this case remains a fascinating example of a family-focused company straying off the beaten track when it comes to marketing, and it seems unlikely we'll ever see such an advert again, given that we live in far more sensitive times.