If the late-’90s dot-com boom was the original Golden Age for awful TV tech ads, then today we are surely living in the Renaissance. Yes, back then we had the Pets.com sock puppet and lots and lots of chimps, but take a spin around the dial and I think you’ll agree that there are now more technology-related ads on television than ever—most of them quite terrible. Here are the ten that bug me the most, and I invite you to please cut loose in the comments on any offenders I neglect to mention.
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Ashton “Ansel Adams” Kutcher
Nikon’s choice of Ashton Kutcher as spokesperson for its digital cameras is a bizarre throwback to the first-ever TV ads, in which movie stars and baseball players were given bags of cash to sell us cigarettes and cough medicine. Aren’t we smarter consumers by now? Don’t we value facts over fluff when making important purchases? Nikon doesn’t seem to think so, and I find that somewhat insulting—almost as insulting as Kutcher himself. I mean, c’mon. I’ve seen better acting at Medieval Times.
When FreeCreditReport.com first debuted its down-and-out, guitar-playing dude and his spot-on rhythm section, I couldn’t get enough of the group’s credit crisis blues. I can’t tell you how many times I found myself humming, “They monitor your credit and send you email alerts / So you don’t end up selling fish to tourists in t-shirts.” All three of the original ads were pure genius. But, then two things happened: First, I discovered that the band isn’t a band at all, but three French-Canadian lip-synchers (look closely at the lead-singer’s mouth and you’ll see what I mean). Second, they released new songs, which aren’t just bad—they’re putrid. There’s nothing even resembling a catchy hook in any of them, and now that I know the guys are actors, I can’t stand the sight of them. Worst of all, FreeCreditReport.com is trying to ride the popularity of its first ads by airing this new batch to death.
It’s safe to assume that Sprint CEO Dan Hesse is a millionaire a few times over, so I’m sorry, but the little slice-of-life vignettes showing him at a diner counter and other “Average Joe” settings just aren’t that believable. I can’t decide what’s worse about these ads: Danno insinuating that he single-handedly invented the idea of a flat fee for unlimited voice and data, or his way of making this new Sprint plan sound like charity—something he’s selflessly sharing with the little people to help us through these tough economic times.
“Hi, I’m a Cable Guy”
With Verizon FiOS carving in-roads into more and more neighborhoods throughout the country, it’s no surprise we’re seeing a glut of “FiOS beats Cable Co.” ads. But, the new Verizon spots make the same mistake the Apple “I’m a Mac” ads did before them. That’s when, for some inexplicable reason, you make the living personification of your brand a smarmy, unlikable know-it-all, while making a lovable loser out of the competition. I’ll take the sweaty, out-of-shape cable guy over the cheeseball catalog model of a Verizon guy any day. The “I’m a Mac” ads walk a fine line where this setup somehow still works to Apple’s advantage (for most viewers). But if this Verizon guy ever showed up at my house to install FiOS, I’d turn the hose on him.
Skip this Dish
Thanks to comedian Frank Caliendo, those pesky “inclement weather” issues are no longer the only reason to stay away from Dish Network. While DirecTV has real celebrities starring in its series of amusing pop-culture flashback ads, the Dish gets Caliendo’s half-baked and, let’s just say, “puffier” attempts at celebrity impersonations. The worst is the latest spot, in which Caliendo does the most abysmal Jerry Seinfeld I’ve ever experienced. It’s almost as if he’s purposely doing a bad impersonation of a bad Jerry Seinfeld impersonation. If Caliendo’s talent is a metaphor for Dish Network’s quality, then you’re better off with bunny ears and a black-and-white.
Family Phone Feud
I loved the first ad for AT&T;’s rollover minutes. The kids, the Dad and the Mom were all perfectly cast, and the new-era spin on that age-old, “There are starving kids in [insert country here]” speech was perfect. Using little clocks to represent discarded rollover minutes was a stroke of genius, plain and simple. But, like all good things (and the aforementioned FreeCreditReport.com sing-alongs), this campaign has been bled dry of any wit and originality it once possessed. The subsequent “Milky Minutes” ad was a real stretch, and just didn’t hit the same note as the original. In the third ad, which features the brothers fighting over a batch of new minutes, Mom has suddenly morphed from loving disciplinarian into sarcastic stand-up comedian. This one-trick pony should be taken out back and shot.
The Microsoft Experiments
After ditching the painfully unfunny Gates/Seinfeld Odd Couple send-up, Microsoft is serving up a one-two–punch with the “I’m a PC” and Mojave campaigns. I’m going to lump together these latest stabs in the dark at consumer appeal since both are equally misguided. “I’m a PC” just smacks of jealousy in a pathetic “me too” kind of way. What’s the message here? That people who wear jeans and grow beards are cool, and cool people use PCs? Um, OK. I give Microsoft credit for trying to turn slander into anthem, but this campaign comes off as sad rather than empowering. As far as The Mojave Experiment is concerned, I’m totally baffled. If I understand it correctly, Microsoft is admitting that Vista, at least according to common perception, sucks, and then goes on to admit that it has to fool people into thinking it doesn’t suck by changing the operating system’s name. Now, if that doesn’t inspire confidence in a product, I don’t know what possibly could.
Stars for sale
I’m a fan of DirecTV’s current ads, which take new footage of a celebrity shilling for satellite and splice it with old footage from one of the star’s most famous roles. But there’s something really off-putting about the Beyonce spot, and I finally figured out what it is. See, while watching Charlie Sheen reprise his role as Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn, or seeing Christie Brinkley seduce Vacation‘s Clark Griswold all over again, I find myself absolutely riveted and wondering, “How’d they do it?” Either these celebs are wearing tons of makeup to hide 20 years of wear and tear, or DirecTV has an honest-to-goodness Flux Capacitor up and running. There’s none of that wonder or awe with Beyonce’s “Let Me Upgrade Ya” ad because the music video being interrupted with a sales pitch looks any Beyonce video would. Instead of saying “How’d they do it?” I find myself wondering, “When did she become such a sellout?”
Hand of God Phone
Enough with the iPhone hand already. I get it. The phone is awesome and does lots of neat stuff, now let’s move on. Show a head or a kneecap or something. Just give us a break . . . or stop running these ads every other minute on every single TV channel on my cable box. Omnipresence much?
I can hear you just fine
I don’t know what it is, but the mere sight of Verizon’s “Can you hear me now?” guy incites a near Bruce Banner-like rage within me. Ad after ad, this nameless, spikey-haired, horn-rimmed-glasses–wearing Verizon tech pops up with his smug smile and team of hardhats, and it’s like we’re supposed to be sitting there on the edge of our seats waiting for him to utter his catchphrase—which, as far as catchphrases go, has got to be the lamest one ever conceived. I even loathe the spots in which he doesn’t say the catchphrase at all, but there’s supposed to be this unspoken understanding that yes, we can indeed hear him now. This guy is the exact opposite of what a likable brand mascot should be. I’d sooner buy a digital camera on Ashton Kutcher’s advice than buy a cell phone from this clown. ** Hate bad tech ads, love great tech? Be sure to check out our picks for the top 100 innovations of the years at popsci.com/bown2008.**