It’s hard to imagine, in our current era where TV shows, movies, and music are all so accessible, but during the ‘90s and early 2000s, often the only way to learn about new works were the advertisements on physical media. For anime, a medium with little mainstream attention prior to the Toonami program block on Cartoon Network, commercials near the start of anime VHS tapes (or near their end) were the only way audiences would learn about newly released anime projects. These advertisements were a crucial piece of insight into the greater world of anime—and they evolved into an art form of their own.

As a modern fan returning to the era of anime VHS tapes, it becomes a surreal experience, seeing now-classics marketed around titles that have faded into obscurity. What’s even stranger, however, is both how these titles were marketed, as well as to what audiences they were marketed to. 

I have always had a personal fascination with old media. I grew up with many of these old tapes, and remembered many of the old advertisements, particularly present on the old Pokémon VHS tapes I have in my collection. However, upon digging deeper, I found a plethora of fascinating advertisements worth sharing.

The Pokémon Commercials That Started This Quest

VHS cover for Pokemon Thunder Shock, featuring Ash and a trainer, Raichu and Pikachu, facing off on the cover

I started down this rabbit hole of anime VHS advertisements thanks to the original commercials I remembered on the Pokémon VHS tapes, released in the US starting on November 24th, 1998 by Pioneer Entertainment. The distribution group did something unusual with their tapes. They’d feature commercials before and after the feature presentation. Most advertisements were usually front loaded on VHS tapes, so the average person who would shut the tape off before the credits finished rolling could see the content they were marketing.

The commercials at the start of the tapes were what you’d expect. They’d market other Pokémon content, such as the commercial for Pokémon The First Movie. However, kids who left the tape running usually ended up seeing one of four separate commercials.

If you purchased the VHS tape Pokémon: Primeape Problems, which featured the battle between Ash and Gym Leader Sabrina, and just kept it rolling after the last episode on the tape, you’d first see a commercial for Pokémon Red and Blue. That’s expected. 

What is less expected were the next three commercials. The second advert was for Ranma ½ the Movie: Big Trouble in Kekonron, China. Following that there was a commercial for the 1997 film adaptation of Dog of Flanders. The last commercial was a cryptic, epic advert for the 1989 anime The New Adventures of Kimba The White Lion

In a lot of ways, this is a bonkers collection of ads. I remember seeing the Kimba The White Lion ad most often as a kid. I had a vague knowledge of Kimba from my parents, and it made sense to market the series to ‘90s kids following the success of The Lion King, a massively successful animated film that Kimba has been compared to quite frequently.

However, in hindsight, seeing adverts for Ranma ½ and Dog of Flanders is incredibly surreal. Ranma ½, one of Viz Media’s first anime releases, is a comedy shonen series for older teens. Even at the time, among Western fans it was regarded as one of the must-see comedy animes. However, between all the gender hijinks and sex jokes, it might seem strange to market anything Ranma ½ related to an audience of elementary school kids.

Still from Dog of Flanders featuring a small child and a dog in the snow

Stranger still was going from the high-level energy of Ranma ½ to the incredibly grounded, melancholic Dog of Flanders. The anime is based on the 1872 English novel of the same name by Marie Louise de la Remee, which is beloved in Japan but fairly obscure in America. The 1997 film isn’t even the first Japanese animated adaptation of the novel. It was first adapted into an anime in 1975, then followed by a second anime, My Patrasche, in 1992. Unsurprisingly, both adaptations have fallen into obscurity in America.

I wouldn’t have even heard of them if not for keeping the Pokémon VHS tape running for a little too long. But I guess the marketing was successful, because I ended up watching the movie. I understand why they’d market a family film on family entertainment, but if you were to jump straight from watching Haunter trick a psychic gym leader into smiling, to watching a small boy starve to death in a church, well…it’s jarring, to say the least.

These end-of-tape adventures sent me down a rabbit hole. If this was what Viz and Pioneer thought they should market to Pokémon viewers, what was marketed toward the more hardcore anime audience?

The Eras of Anime Commercials

VHS case for Neon Genesis Evangelion

When reviewing the various tapes available, it becomes clear that there are eras to VHS tape advertisements. Commercials from the ‘90s often overlaid edited clips of the anime over audio. This marketing technique could be most often seen in several ads in early Manga Video UK tapes, alongside ads that featured text-only advertisements. 

The UK VHS for Junk Boy featured a general ad against video piracy, a Manga Entertainment montage clip, an ad for Gail Force, followed by roughly 40 seconds of silent ads: text over images showcasing titles that were coming soon, including, most jarringly, an ad for the Ghost in the Shell: Collectors Edition VHS. More refined commercials that follow a similar pattern can be seen before the first Neon Genesis Evangelion tape. Of note, Evangelion’s VHS also featured Yoshiyuki Sadamoto’s production art after its credits.

Later VHS tapes would contain more traditional commercials for anime titles, as seen in Pioneer Entertainment’s later VHS tapes. Their VHS for Sailor Moon R: The Movie featured, much like the earlier Pokémon tapes, an ad for both Dog of Flanders and The New Adventures of Kimba the White Lion, as well as for Catnapped! All of this, naturally, begs the question why Pioneer couldn’t market Sailor Moon on the Pokémon tapes, or vice versa.

It doesn’t feel as though the tapes knew how to strategically market to its audience until Funimation’s tapes. Theirs tended to contain more traditional commercials geared directly to its audience. Case in point, their VHS release of Dragon Ball Z: Cooler’s Revenge. This tape markets Dragon Ball Z figures, Dragon Ball, Dragon Ball Z, before ending with an advert for another shonen anime: Yu Yu Hakusho. After that, another Dragon Ball Z Gameboy Game. This tape clearly knows how to market to its established audience while also nudging them deeper into the anime fandom pipeline with another, similar title.

What this era shows us is that the companies saw anime as a very unique sort of commodity to market to its audience. Until the 2000s, the marketing involved broad and vague assumptions about what anime an anime fan might enjoy. Prior ads would market large swaths of anime all at once, creating a bombardment of media, while later marketing material would place a smaller number of curated ads before a video to target the specific interests of the audience picking up the VHS and, later, DVD.

Marketing Anime With AMVs

Finnish box art for Manga Entertainment's release of Ghost in the Shell

When discussing the shotgun approach to anime VHS ads, we need to talk about the AMV-style ads often incorporated at the start of ‘90s anime VHS tapes and DVDs. Companies loved marketing several anime all at once in edited montages, often accompanied by high-octane music. 

It’s hard to not compare the latter variety of commercials to fanmade AMVs. Anyone who purchased a Manga Entertainment video during the late-90s or early-2000s will remember associating KMFDM’s “Ultra” with adult anime classics like Ninja Scroll and Ghost in the Shell. However, Manga Entertainment was not the only one to do this, as ADV would often feature an anime music video of their own, using a flashy montage to market a bunch of anime to their target audience.

A great example of this technique is this well-known Manga Entertainment promo reel, which showcases a lot of titles in quick succession. It starts with Ninja Scroll, one of the most well-known anime of their catalog. After showing their logo, the reel transitions into the 1989 OVA The Guyver before transitioning into the well-regarded, though now somewhat overlooked, anime film Wings of Honneamise. 

This is followed by Macross Plus and then, bafflingly, Mad Bull 34, the latter of which sports a summary of the series in text that scrolls past exceedingly fast at the bottom of the screen. Mad Bull 34 is the only anime to have this built-in summary, which makes its inclusion, as well as the infamous pubic-hair grenade sequence, the most jarring part of this commercial. 

The fact that the scrolling synopsis is unusual does highlight another feature of these advertisements: they tended to be more interested in showing off impressive or exciting action sequences from the series, rather than trying to draw their audience in with summary of, or even hints at, their plots and narratives. At this time, the aesthetics of anime were seen as enough to sell someone on a concept. The ad continues in this fashion, showing off clips from Devil Man, Giant Robo, Dangaioh, The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb, before culminating with arguably Manga Entertainment’s most critically significant title at the time, Ghost in the Shell.

This promotional reel is fairly logical, with a few exceptions. All of these titles are adult-oriented anime, often showcasing graphic violence and overt sexuality. Even titles like Mad Bull 34, while they stand out as being lower quality from Ninja Scroll, Wings, and Ghost in the Shell, fit into this aesthetic. The most jarring inclusion is The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb, a claymation film clearly not from Japan that looks far more unsettling than action-packed. Most of the films are also genre films. Six are sci-fi, two are dark fantasy, and two are cop procedurals. There is a clear, cohesive demographic Manga is marketing to.

All of them are well-remembered titles among older fans, although not all of them are held to the same level of quality. No one will argue Mad Bull 34 is on par with Ghost in the Shell in terms of quality.

ADV’s promo reels are very similar to Manga’s in theory, but the differences showcase why their reels, arguably, failed to be as successful at marketing its library of anime. They edited a fast montage of clips over an industrial music song, albeit one far less distinct than “Ultra.”

One promo reel available online is only a minute long video – in stark contrast to Manga’s over four minute reel. In quick succession, ADV shows audiences clips of Kimegore Orange Road, Curse of the Undead Yoma, Kimera, Sonic Soldier Borgman Lovers Rain, My Dear Marie, Dirty Pair Flash, Ruin Explorers, Fire Emblem, Black Lion, Miyuki in Wonderland, Cutie Honey, and Blue Seed – all within 40 seconds. The last twenty seconds of the ad are entirely devoted to one anime: Neon Genesis Evangelion.

Another reel created later followed a similar format, instead promoting Bubblegum Crisis Tokyo – 2040 AD, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Lost Universe, Generator Gawl, Princess Nine, Nadesico, Spell Wars, Sakura Diaries, Sin, Samurai X, City Hunter Secret Service, and Spriggan, with its final twenty seconds being devoted to Gasaraki

It’s hard to comprehend ADV’s ads as anything more than a whirlwind of anime flying at the screen all at once. In fact, due to the way it’s edited, it’s hard to even get a sense of what the anime are like, their tone, their characters—even sometimes their genre. All the titles blur together. They’re mostly sci-fi and fantasy anime, but because the reel spends at most a few seconds on each series, the imagery has left your memory before you can really register what you just saw. 

While Manga’s promo reel keeps the titles of each anime on-screen in a corner for the entire time the clip is playing, ADV features a few frames of the title before cutting away. As a result, it’s hard to even know what they’re marketing – other than, of course Neon Genesis Evangelion and Gasaraki, which are afforded the prime real estate in these frantic montages. If you’re watching the original VHS tape, that makes it all the harder to pause to see the titles.

Still, the key problem with all of these ads is that, even in the longer reels, we never get a sense of what these shows are about. It put certain visuals and aesthetics in the public mind, but never a plot to link it all together to. Why should I, a fan watching Ghost in the Shell, care about Mad Bull 34 – other than to see why that cop has grenades bound to his pubic hair?

The Anime World No Longer Works This Way

Banner ad for Crunchyroll, featuring its mascot and the text "All your anime in one place!"

What’s interesting about the approach these older companies took to marketing anime is that it’s a technique that can simply no longer exist. With between twenty or thirty new anime titles hitting screens every season, it is far easier to miss a series in the line-up than if there are fifteen different anime available, in total, at the local Suncoast. There are more anime titles than ever before, filling many more niches—advertising broadly based on your audience simply “liking anime” is no longer viable.

Nowadays, the marketing campaign for an anime tends to follow a pattern: official art, maybe a trailer straight out of Japan, and, if the release is big enough, a unique ad that might appear as a header on streaming sites like Crunchyroll. A significant portion of modern anime are adapted from either manga or light novels, with the source material and the fandom around it often serving as the key means to build pre-release hype.

In modern anime fandom, there is no substitute for word of mouth. Media journalists will discuss and rank every season’s new releases, while YouTubers will elevate their personal favorites on top of a digital algorithm. While it’s easy to get swamped in the sheer amount of new series, the Internet has also made it easier than ever to find works that suit your personal tastes. Commercials nowadays are skipped or overlooked by fans, as opposed to in the old days of anime fandom, where they were both unavoidable and possibly the only way a fan might learn about a major anime’s existence.

Now, in all fairness, there are still echoes of the old-school anime marketing style still present in modern day society. The Crunchyroll Originals ad released in 2020 follows a similar pattern to the older Manga promo reel – with a montage of various clips edited to high-octane music. However, these sorts of ads are often supplemented by more specialized ad campaigns. Often, distributors will either repurpose marketing material from Japan or create concise, polished adverts.

These tapes and collections of advertisements serve as a time capsule. With our increasingly community-driven anime fandom, it is humbling to return to an era where anime was scarce and learning about a new series was difficult. Anime fans nowadays have every anime available at their fingertips. Back in the ‘90s, you had a sprinkling of VHS tapes, each with two episodes a piece with only one audio track. These tapes serve two purposes in 2022: a reminder of just how privileged we are in this day and age to have so much content, and a reminder of that magical feeling of finding a hidden gem.