Since its release in October 2001, Grand Theft Auto III has been lauded for its radio stations. From rap and opera music stations to zany talk radio, it almost feels like you're tuned into an actual radio as you roll through the streets of Liberty City—and, 20 years later, the in-game radio commercials still hold up as some of the best satire in games. It is here where an approximation of publisher Rockstar Games’ soul is laid bare.
One such commercial showcases the mighty Miabatsu Monstrosity, a reference to the gas-guzzling SUVs that came onto the scene in the early aughts. Personal injury law firm Rakin and Ponzer, meanwhile, get on the airwaves to declare: “See, the great thing about this country is you can sue anyone for pretty much anything, and you'll probably win.”
But just who wrote and produced these commercials? Who voiced them? And how do these spots hold up today in the eyes of people who live and breathe advertising and radio? WIRED recently asked all these questions, including to key Rockstar figure Lazlow Jones.
Rockstar faithful know Lazlow as the memorable host of several radio stations in the GTA universe, including his debut in GTA III radio’s Chatterbox FM. But Lazlow was also a director, writer, and producer at Rockstar for nearly two decades, working directly for and writing with Rockstar cofounder Dan Houser before leaving the company in April 2020.
With the 20th anniversary of GTA III—and Rockstar’s announcement that it will release next-generation remastered versions of GTA III, GTA Vice City, and GTA San Andreas on November 11—here’s an inside look at exactly how GTA III’s commercials came to be and how they resonate today.
A Star Is Born
Lazlow would be the first to call his rise to video gaming royalty unlikely. In the 1990s and early 2000s, he spent time as a journalist, at a digital ad agency, and as a radio host of Technofile, a daily syndicated show that focused on technology and video games.
He arrived at the Rockstar offices in Manhattan in 2001 to do a radio piece about the then upstart video game company. “Dan [Houser] mentioned they were working on a game that had radio in it and wanted to spoof American stations. I’ve been obsessed with radio since I was a kid—my father was a blues and soul DJ before I was born, and I had worked at a rock station in the Midwest,” Lazlow says.
Lazlow and Houser started talking about the crazy state of American radio at the time, including how cookie-cutter almost every radio station sounded. They had, inevitably, “some deep-voiced guy trying to sound tough or crack terrible sex jokes,” says Lazlow. It wasn’t long before he was officially invited to join the Rockstar team.
Rockstar’s first office was tiny and cluttered, recalls Lazlow. It didn’t even have a meeting room. Once a week in Houser’s apartment, the duo would power through creative sessions fueled by an admixture of anchovy onion pizza, diet Cokes, and cigarettes.
“I remember that first writing meeting—we were laughing a lot. Dan is insanely funny. I switched to taking notes on a laptop because I couldn’t write fast enough with a pen,” Lazlow says.
From these creative sessions came many of GTA III's radio ad spots. One such advertisement is for the Maibatsu Monstrosity—a car manufactured by a fictional Japanese automaker. The Monstrosity boasts a whopping 3 miles to the gallon and a special amphibious mode—though a homemaker in one commercial only reports using the SUV to cross a puddle. But not to worry, she assures the listener, she’s a mom, not a conservationist!
“Commercials are a reflection of our collective insecurity and subconscious. So we wanted an ad for an obnoxious SUV for insecure suburbanites,” Lazlow explains.
Another commercial introduces the Dormatron, an exercise tool that uses “biorhythmic subconscious gymnastics” to facilitate miraculous weight loss while sound asleep. And Fernando's New Beginnings advertises a service for spicing up stale relationships by meeting a woman named Barbara by the turnpike. The material was so rich that love doctor Fernando Martinez also sits down with Lazlow on Chatterbox for a full nine-minute segment.
Lazlow explains that he and Houser would divide up the writing and each take a pass on the commercial scripts. “It got to the point where we didn’t know who wrote what line. We have vastly different backgrounds—he’s from London and I’m from Oklahoma, but the chemistry really works.”
Nearly every voice on GTA III’s radio is a friend or family member of Lazlow. He brought in pals from his many years in radio to do voice-overs, most of which were recorded in his home studio. In this environment, improvisation was encouraged and some on-the-fly takes even ended up in the game. He would edit them and send them to Houser, and the two would listen to them together on the phone.
Remember that Nike spoof, Eris running shoes, about a pitiable boy who works in a sweatshop and accidentally sews his hands together?
Well, that little voice was Lazlow’s next-door neighbor’s 6-year-old son.
“I actually just saw him the other day, and he’s a grown man, all tatted up and working in tech. Bizarre to think we made this thing over 20 years ago,” Lazlow says.
Radio Then and Now
“Great advertising is about pleasure. Really bad, negative advertising is about pain. This is sort of taking the pain and being very honest about it,” explains Jason Schragger, chief creative officer at Saatchi & Saatchi.
Before iPhones and video-on-demand, Schragger says the early 2000s were the last time radio en masse had such a strong draw with the public. The medium’s power, he says, lies in the so-called theater of the mind—the tools and techniques by which radio performers conjure vivid imagery in their audiences' minds solely through sound.
For instance, GTA III commercial House of Tomorrow includes futuristic sound effects and a British humanoid voice, bringing to mind a George Jetson future which is now our Alexa and Apple Watch reality.
GTA III’s commercials also speak to a deeper shift that was going on in American media at the time.
“Radio used to serve communities,” begins Ayinde Alakoye, founder of the live broadcast radio streaming venture nēdl and creator of the original iHeartRadio app. “Then the Telecommunications Act of 1996 essentially deregulated it.”
That act, the “first major overhaul of telecommunications law” in more than six decades, eliminated a cap on nationwide station ownership and increased the number of stations one entity could own in a single market.
“Companies like Clear Channel could just go in and buy up all the radio stations. And for the first time in the history of our country—for something that was once beloved—people started to say the words ‘I hate radio,’” Ayinde continues.
Lazlow thinks one of the reasons the stations in GTA III resonate so strongly with people is because Rockstar leaned into this disenchanted feeling—and nearly every ad has predicted some aspect of American radio and culture in the past 20 years.
Liberty City Survivor, a 24/7-365 broadcasted battle-royale-style event with Liberty City parolees, reminded veteran podcaster Alison Rosen of turn-of-the-decade reality hits like Fear Factor and Survivor. In her world, she does what is called host-read ads; she tries out a product, receives advertising copy with important bullet points, and then puts it all into her own words.
Liberty City Survivor anticipates the Netflix hit show Squid Game as well, which David Bullock, founder of the experiential marketing firm 907 Agency, immediately called out.
Bullock, a Forbes 30 Under 30, first made waves when he helped organize a Project X-type party that trended worldwide on Twitter. He has since traveled on tour with Kanye West and others.
“When you look at the landscape of viral marketing 20 years after that [Liberty City Survivor] ad was created, the series Squid Game has a plot very similar to that commercial, and it is Netflix's most popular show ever,” he says.
The Advertising Council
Many assets in GTA III have a way of showing up in various ways both within the game and beyond. Most video games don’t bother creating mythology this expansive.
Opening up GTA III’s original Playstation 2 case reveals a manual (remember those?!) and a much-needed map of Liberty City. Within these pages, a “classifieds section” runs these familiar radio ads in print form, including Petsovernight.com, one of Lazlow’s favorites, which even guarantees a giraffe on demand.
Rockstar’s original flash website for GTA III also contained a Petsovernight.com reference. And a small project by Rockstar called the Advertising Council—not to be confused with the actual nonprofit that produces and distributes public service announcements—later unleashed a trove of content deemed too hot for the final airwaves.
A nixed radio commercial for military recruitment asks, “Do you long for a dominating man in your life?” But remember that GTA III was released a few weeks after 9/11, so maybe this was one controversy even Rockstar decided to just avoid.
As for Lazlow, looking back at his ride since 2001 and his role in spearheading these commercials, he says that he’s just grateful he was able to be part of the team and its legacy.
“I’m especially proud of how, in later games, we skewered tech companies, social media, and tech bro founders. As we’ve seen recently, these platforms have monetized division and are really driving people to a dark place. The brilliant folks at Rockstar North in Scotland and Rockstar New York had the vision for this game. I’m super blessed I met them and got to be a part of the team,” he adds.