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15 years on: The story behind one of Xbox's most notorious TV ads

Harvey Eagle recalls the creation of the banned UK TV ad, Champagne

There's a few memories I have from the launch of the very first Xbox.

There was the early sparring with GameCube, and Microsoft cutting the price of the machine by 100 after barely a month on shelves. I remember Halo and Project Gotham being great (but that was mostly it), and I recall that Ethernet port on the back, which wouldn't really get used until Xbox Live arrived about a year later.

I also vividly remember this UK TV ad.

This ad became famous as one of the early examples of a viral video in an age before YouTube. It's also renown for falling foul of the Independent Television Commission and being banned.

If you didn't click on the video, let me recap. The ad begins with a child being born, the child shoots through the window and then ages rapidly, before crashing into a grave. The tagline was: 'Life is short, play more'.

It attracted 136 complaints in total from viewers that found the ad 'offensive, shocking and in bad taste'.

Interestingly, it wasn't the violence of birth, or even the rapid ageing, that distressed viewers the most. 20 of the complaints came from recently bereaved people, who found the theme of death upsetting.

Microsoft defended its position, insisting the ad was supposed to be a positive statement about life. Yet the ITC dismissed that, and said that the man's screams suggested a 'traumatic experience' which, coupled with the 'life is short' tagline, 'made the final scene more shocking'.

ITC even issued a warning to the Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre, whose job it was to approve the ads, reminding them that advertisements involving death - which could cause upset - cannot be avoided in a way that a TV programme on the subject can. Viewers are able to simply avoid watching a show containing murder or violence, as they usually feature appropriate warnings, but advertisements do not.

Yet the truth is, the banning of the 'Life Is Short' ad - or rather 'Champagne' as was its actual title - only made it more successful and notorious.

The ad was commissioned by European advertising manager Harvey Eagle, who joined Xbox in 2000 from Hasbro Interactive and remains head of UK market to this day. He got the job after writing a letter to then Xbox Europe boss Sandy Duncan, and was tasked - along with a small team - to define the Xbox brand for the Europe.

"I remember that there was no rule book, none of us had launched a console before, and it was a very exciting time to be part of that small launch team," Eagle told GamesIndustry.biz.

"We were heading into the unknown at a really rapid rate, and it was the thrill of knowing that we had a small bunch of people who were absolutely committed to trying to make this work. We were able to really work on something that we think is quite unique in terms of a career opportunity. There aren't that many people that gets the chance to work on something that big, from scratch, with such a small group of dedicated people."

Eagle was the man who would commission the 'Champagne' TV ad. Yet the idea for the ad didn't come from Eagle himself, but was rather a concept pitched to him by two of the most renowned marketing creatives in the world. It was also not intended for TV at all, at least not to begin with.

"I remember that we set out to create a piece of content that would get shared virally and that we thought would be a really cool way to introduce people to the Xbox brand," he recalls.

"The ad agency at the time we were working with was BBH [Bartle Bogle Hegarty], and within BBH we had been assigned a young upcoming creative team, who were French and were two guys called Fred and Farid. They were a highly talented, very prolific creative team."

Fred and Farid are now leaders of their own major marketing agency, and they had a reputation for coming up with loads of concepts and pitching them to clients. They had dreamed up dozens of ideas for the Xbox viral video, and pitched them all to Eagle. Champagne (or Missile, as it was initially called) was amongst them.

"I always think that the very best ideas are the ones that are simple enough to be described in just a few of sentences. They basically described to me that: 'There's a baby who catapults through the hospital window at birth, it ages from cradle to grave as it flies through the air, and then it crashes into the grave as an old man. Then words comes up that says: 'Life is Short Play More'." At that moment I knew that that was the one, because of its brilliant simplicity."

The ad was certainly a little risky, so Eagle flew to Microsoft's HQ in Redmond to get permission to produce it, and the US team gave it the thumbs up.

"I remember we had to crunch down the file format to under 2MB because it had to be able to be passed around over email," Eagle continues. "YouTube didn't exist in those days, and the only method of sharing something virally was over email. I also remember inserting a tracking device, a piece of code imbedded into the file, so that we could essentially track the number of shares that it was getting."

The tracking device noted that over 1m people had shared the ad via email. "That may not sound that remarkable in comparison to some of today's top video views, but in terms of sharing peer-to-peer over email, that was definitely a high number at that time," Eagle said.

The response to the video inspired Eagle and the Xbox team to put it on TV.

"One decision that we took which, in the benefit of hindsight, really worked in our favour was that we did decide to film it in broadcast quality," Eagle explains. "We did that so it could make the jump to TV if we decided to go down that path. At the time there was a Levis campaign called Flat Eric, which had done a similar thing, it started as a viral ad and it made the transition to TV. That was in our minds as well.

"We did end up putting the ad on TV. Infamously, the ad was banned after really only a small handful of complaints. But those complaints were upheld, and of course that only served to help its notoriety even further."

Yet far from being disappointed or embarrassed, Eagle remains proud of the ad. It would go on to win multiple awards for viral video and marketing, and was still shown online and via cinemas. Eagle also feels it made a statement about this new gaming brand called Xbox.

"When you're new, you have to be clear about what you stand for as a brand," he concludes. "And I think that particular idea really encapsulated everything that we were trying to represent as a new brand in the video games industry."

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Latest comments (1)

Paul Jace Merchandiser 7 months ago
Until today I've never seen that ad before, although that likely has more to do with me living in the US. But I didn't find it offensive at all. Probably not the direction I would have taken but still not the worst video game ad I've ever seen.
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