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Bad Men: The Five Worst Tech Ads and Five Who Got It Right

bad and good tech ads
While we'd love to think we're immune to the coercive powers of advertising, we're confident that a lie detector test would shame us all. For the companies hoping to sell us their wares, that would seem like great news, but the blade of advertising cuts both ways; a bad commercial or ad campaign can conversely turn out to be a powerful disincentive. In the tech world, biases toward or against a brand are especially important, since many of us attach an emotional response to our gear. Simply put, many of us, consciously or not, feel like we are what we use.

With those thoughts in mind, Switched took a look at the advertising landscape from the perspective of a gadget hound, and found what we think are five of the worst ads we've seen in years. Truly awful stuff. In the spirit of cooperation, we pointed out the errors of their ways, and have offered up five more ads that took the same approach yet came out shining. As a wise man once said, knowing is half the battle.

1. The Celebrity Endorsement

The Product: T-Mobile myTouch 3G
The Ploy: Convince viewers to equate the charisma and star power of a celebrity with a product or brand.

Why it failed
: On paper, T-Mobile's campaign, which featured several variations on the same theme, is all win -- a simple but captivating concept, slick visuals, great music, the product front and center throughout. But the devil is in the details, and in this case it's the casting director, who had apparently been buried in a time capsule since 1995, emerging only to select the hottest celebs. Chevy Chase? Hmmm. Well, okay, we watch 'Community.' Molly Shannon? Oh, right, we used to really be into her. You know, in high school. Dana Carvey... wait a minute, where are we going with this? Daryl Hammond?!? Don't get us wrong, we have a soft spot for all of these SNL alums, but even they'd agree that their stars aren't exactly burning at their brightest right now (which may explain why they're doing T-Mobile ads). It's almost like T-Mobile is trying to say, "We care so much about this phone, we hired the very best celebs that a minuscule sum of money can buy." The lesson is simple; if you're going to play the celeb card, make it a point to hire relevant celebs.

Who got it right:
HP "The Computer is Personal Again"
HP's guiding principle in these innovative spots was to have creative people explaining how they utilize their PC in their creative process. In recruiting stars, HP clearly swung for the fences. It's a dazzling, cross-media potpourri of hip, creative, often cutting-edge talent: Jay-Z, Pharrell, Gwen Stefani, Mark Cuban, Michel Gondry, Paulo Coehlo, Vera Wang, Serena Williams and Jerry Seinfeld, to name a few. Beyond the star power, the spots are pithy, inspiring and sometimes even ingenious. (Check out Michel Gondry's, again and again, as we have). In short, it's the definition of win.

2. The Attack Ad

The Product: Road Runner High Speed Online
The Ploy: If you can't trust viewers to value or understand your product's worth, go after the competition in the hopes that you can make them look like worse alternatives.

Why it failed: Everything about this ad reeks of third-rate, low-brow laziness. The casting, the tone, the scenario -- it's a heaping pile of crud. When this campaign initially ran, we were gobsmacked. Watching them again, we still can't wrap our heads around the idea that Road Runner actually chose to depict itself in this fanciful scenario as a bullying blowhard, an ersatz Michael Madsen a-hole (who also happens to be obsessed with constipation). The fact that it also goes beyond exaggeration to misinformation, well, let's just say it colon-blows. If you're going to start a war, always make sure you occupy the moral high ground.

Who got it right: Apple "Mac vs. PC"

The ne plus ultra of attack ad campaigns, Apple's heralded Mac vs. PC series is a win on so many levels; the spots are creative, witty, play off stereotypes in a lighthearted way, get a strong product message across and are generally hilarious (at least for the first 15 or so versions). Certainly, devout Windows fans were rightfully irked by some exaggerated assertions, but the fact that John Hodgman's bumbling PC ended up being the comic hero to Justin Long's grating straight man is a mighty consolation.

3. The Artsy Approach

The Product: Palm Pre
The Ploy: Using moody visuals or a clever, high-concept approach to convince viewers to associate a product with taste, wit and intelligence.

Why it failed: If you were to rewind the clocks to January 2008 to ask us how a promising and highly anticipated device like the Palm Pre could fail to not only succeed but even thrive, we'd have been stumped. Seriously, we'd have had no clue. Put dead puppies in the ads? Sick children? Nazis? Well, it turns out it was simple: have your revolutionary, multi-tasking, media-centric smartphone pitched by a creepy Renaissance Faire wench talking about her dreams and déjà vu and other assorted hokum. Done and done. This patently tone-deaf marketing move not only alienated the Pre's presumed core market, but actually put-off all demographics; everyone hated it. And not only did it effectively kill the chances of what was, in many ways, an excellent product, but it also delivered the death blow to the already teetering Palm itself. There are few ad campaigns in history that can claim to be so awfully self-destructive.

Who got it right: Sony Bravia "Color Like No Other"

Utterly sublime, unexpected and visually dazzling, Sony's pitch is a stunt but not one for its own sake; those millions of colored balls punch home a brilliant bullet point that Sony offers color like you've never seen. It's a perfect high-concept approach for marketing a TV. The viewer is left feeling like they've just seen something unbelievably cool, and Sony must be pretty cool to have made such an ad. Granted, you might point out that not everyone can execute such a masterful concept, but then again, Sony has done a whole series like this -- with paint exploding over an old housing estate and a pyramid festooned in bobbins of thread -- and we can't decide which we love more. Commercials like these remind us that ads can sometimes be art, and Sony deservedly gets the street cred for it.

4. The Laffer

The Product: Microsoft
The Ploy: Like a shared joke among friends, eliciting laughs from a viewer can inspire a sense of trust, imply shared values and create a feeling of good will for a corporation trying to update its public image.

Why it failed: Nerds have long used comedy as a defense mechanism to win over the bullying hordes, and so, trusting the old saying that laughter is the best medicine, an ailing Microsoft figured it was just the 'script they needed for a complete corporate face-lift. Perhaps it could have been, but we'll never know, as this trainwreck pretty well cemented the idea that Microsoft was the unfunny geek who tried way too hard to pretend it wasn't. Overwritten, self-consciously kooky and far too long, in a way it perfectly characterized Microsoft at the time: an over-confident and out-of-touch behemoth floundering for an identity. Come to think of it, the same could be said for Seinfeld.

Who got it right: Intel "Generations"

Short of the people who dream up 'Magic: The Gathering' cards, you'd be hard pressed to find a company that exemplifies hardcore nerdiness more than a processor manufacturer. And yet, by not trying to be something they aren't, Intel comes out the winner. This short and sweet spot is charmingly, infectiously funny and mildly self-deprecating, but gets across the point that Something Big is coming. Our only quibble, the grating chorus that scats Intel's signature chime, is at least honest to the brand.

5. The Compelling Story

The Product: General Motors 100,000 mile warranty
The Ploy: Put a product's value and usefulness in context using dramatic narrative conventions: a story with a beginning, middle and end.

Why it failed: In a vacuum, this ad is total genius and we adore it. So why does it fail? Context is everything. For starters, at almost the precise moment this spot debuted during the 2007 Superbowl, GM was beginning what would later reveal itself as a downward spiral into bankruptcy, and the automaker had already laid off thousands of workers in preceding years. So, rather than coming off as clever, the spot comes off as either appallingly ignorant or an astonishingly callous mockery of its now-unemployed workers; sort of like GM's chief who took a private plane to Congress to beg for money months later. Secondly, its black-humored alterna-comedy tone is completely wrong for GM -- like using Zach Galifianikis to pitch minivans to soccer moms (which we'd might enjoy seeing). In fact, complaints about the spot forced GM to re-edit the ad without the suicide attempt. Guys, remember: No matter how great a story is, it's no good unless it fits your brand.

Who got it right: Xerox "Monks"

Granted, the editing feels long in today's world of smash-cuts, but this 1976 Superbowl spot is otherwise a triumph of efficient and entertaining storytelling -- a timeless, charming tale of an overworked office drone who finds a sneaky way to beat the boss. It's funny, feels slightly cheeky without being obnoxious, and presents an otherwise drab product and hard sell in an engaging and enlightening way. It's simplicity itself. Copywriters and ad men of the world take note.

Tags: ads, advertising, apple, audience, branding, commercials, feature, features, general motors, GeneralMotors, intel, mac vs pc, MacVsPc, marketing, microsoft, palm pre, PalmPre, road runner, RoadRunner, sony bravia, SonyBravia, tmobile, top, xerox



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