Exhibit / May 17, 2017
Object Name: Intellivision advertising campaign featuring George Plimpton
Maker and Year: Mattel Electronics, 1980-1983
Object Type: Print advertisement, television advertisements
Image Source: The Dot Eaters (print ad), The Videography Co. YouTube channel (1981 TV ad), IntellivisionProd YouTube channel (1982 TV ad)
Description: (Michael Grasso)
The intersection of literary gadfly George Plimpton (1927-2003) with the Mattel Intellivision video game console (introduced in 1980) seems a very strange fit on the surface. Plimpton acted as Intellivision’s pitchman throughout the early 1980s in a series of print and television advertisements, his stentorian tones touting Intellivision’s superiority to industry juggernaut Atari. The story of how Plimpton ended up in these spots is a fascinating case study of how the cultural establishment at the dawn of the 1980s intersected with and began to comprehend the new fields of home video gaming and home computing.
Plimpton was born the scion of an old Yankee family whose lineage stretches all the way back to the first generation of Puritan settlers in Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630. Plimpton’s grandfather moved into publishing in New York in the early 20th century, and the Plimptons became mainstays in the New York City cultural scene. George Plimpton served in the U.S. Army in the final days of World War II, attended Harvard and Cambridge, and found himself at loose ends in postwar, early 1950s Paris. There he formed a literary and artistic scene with many of the other bright young things of the expat community, which led to the founding of the influential literary journal The Paris Review in 1953. One of the members of the journal’s masthead was Peter Matthiessen, who claims to have helped found the Review as part of his duties as a CIA contract agent. (The CIA funded many Western artistic and cultural efforts in the 1950s, attempting to undermine Soviet influence in Europe and elsewhere.)
In the 1960s, Plimpton was one of the many practitioners of what would become known as New Journalism, a participatory form of investigative writing that would lead to some of his most famous literary efforts. His bailiwick was sports: among his participatory journalistic efforts were getting his nose bloodied after three rounds of sparring with light heavyweight champ Archie Moore, getting Willie Mays to pop out in an exhibition, and, most famously, his 1963 tryout for the Detroit Lions, detailed in his bestseller Paper Lion (1966), which was adapted for the screen in 1968.
One of George Plimpton’s first television ads for Intellivision, 1980. Like the print ad (1981) above, it leans on direct comparison of Atari and Intellivision sports cartridges.
Plimpton was therefore a fairly well-known cultural figure even among middle Americans by 1980. His status as both a patrician from one of America’s oldest families and a man who wasn’t afraid to get battered and bruised in his pursuit of a story led Mattel to approach him to be the spokesman in their advertising campaign. The Intellivision was Mattel’s parry against the Atari VCS. In development and testing in 1978 and 1979, the Intellivision was released in North America in 1980. At this point, Atari was well-positioned as the market leader in home video games; the VCS, after a slow start, hit the American Christmas gift market like a house afire in 1979, leaving the Sunnyvale, California company in the ascendant.
Plimpton’s cultured Yankee accent and affect in ads positioned the Intellivision as the “smart” choice, and the advertising campaign expanded the “Intellivision” portmanteau into “Intelligent Television.” (According to company lore, Mattel provided Plimpton with both an Atari and an Intellivision and asked him to play both, compare them, and then sign an affidavit certifying the Intellivision’s superiority.) Intellivision’s games arguably were superior to the VCS (later rebranded the Atari 2600 in 1982) catalog, and featured a multi-purpose, all-in-one controller, unlike the Atari’s unwieldy joystick/paddle/keypad triad of separate controllers. The Intellivision’s initial line of games leaned towards more “serious” adult titles: sports, board, and casino games, for instance, which made Plimpton’s presence in the ads seem a natural fit. The games offered custom keypad overlays to facilitate gameplay, and the Intellivision was also modular, offering later add-ons like a computer keyboard that expanded the unit’s memory, a piano keyboard, and a speech synthesizer made popular thanks to Texas Instruments’ TI-99/4A computer and Speak ‘n’ Spell.
1982 ad featuring Plimpton and Henry Thomas of E.T. Mattel wanted to capitalize on the runaway success of the Spielberg film, and used Atari’s E.T. adaptation—the most epic failure in video game history—as leverage. Thomas riding a bike and ending the ad without saying his name were meant to tweak Atari’s lawyers, who didn’t want anything associated with the film appearing in the Intellivision ad.
Intellivision faced the same daunting challenge as other video game makers in the face of the Video Game Crash of 1983, and Mattel sold off the Intellivision division in February of 1984. Plimpton later looked back on his time as the face of Mattel’s extensive ad campaign with bemused fondness. The “Intellivision Lives” site, run by former members of Intellivision’s development team, the “Blue Sky Rangers,” notes that Plimpton’s father Francis, a white-shoe lawyer and member of the U.S.’s United Nations delegation during the Kennedy administration, “was ‘appalled’ that [George] had sunk to being a common huckster.” Ultimately, Plimpton’s presence for Intellivision specifically, and for video games in general, ushered the new medium into the post-crash age, offering a promise that they could be something other than the detrimental influence many believed them to be. If a tall, striking, sweater-vest-wearing Brahmin like George Plimpton could enjoy Intellivision’s Baseball or Skiing, then certainly the games would be a welcome, enriching, even educational presence in anyone’s living room. In the FX television series The Americans (2013-), which is set in the early ’80s, Henry Jennings, the unwitting son of Soviet sleeper agents, uses this exact tactic on his parents to convince them to buy an Intellivision.