Negative Tech Ads: A Short History in Video

In 2009, tech advertising took a sharp turn toward the negative. After years of being sucker-punched by Apple's anti-Windows ads, Microsoft finally fought back with a series of "Laptop Hunter" ads in which real people rejected Macs as overpriced and short on substance.

Verizon Wireless, meanwhile, promoted its Droid handset in part by attacking Apple's iPhone as limited and...well, kind of a girlyphone. It also slammed AT&T's 3G coverage in a series of ads that prompted AT&T to respond both on TV and in court.

It was enough to leave observers pining for the calm, reasoned discourse of political campaign ads. But truth to tell, tech companies have been sniping at the competition in advertising for as long as they've advertised their wares. And YouTube is bursting at the seams with evidence.

Apple's 25-Year War on Microsoft

Whatever you think of the "Laptop Hunter" ads, you can see why Microsoft might lash out at Apple. By the time the ads aired last year, the maker of Windows had spent a quarter century stifling its emotions while Apple promoted Macs in large part by slamming Microsoft.

It all goes back to the very first Macintosh TV ad--the legendary "1984." True, the commercial didn't mention Microsoft by name. But it did compare people who used IBM PCs--powered by Bill Gates and Paul Allen's MS-DOS--to a zombie army under the control of an evil overlord. That can't be considered a compliment.

By the 1990s, Apple's Microsoft-bashing had gotten less futuristic and more explicit.

Strangely enough, the negative vibes aimed at Redmond were interspersed with occasional ads bragging that Macs could run Windows, too--yes, the same OS that the other Apple ads said was nothing but a headache waiting to happen.

In 2002, Apple launched the "Switch" campaign, featuring typical computer users bitching about PCs and praising Macs while John Murphy's song "Spit" thumped in the background. The one everyone remembers stars high school student Ellen Feiss, so let's watch this one with Liza Richardson--a "real person" who eventually worked behind the scenes on Apple ads--instead.

This is a "Switch" commercial made for airing in Japan--and you don't need to speak a word of Japanese to get the gist, and to identify the moment at which she stops talking about PCs and begins discussing Macs.

Like "Switch," Apple's current, long-running "Get a Mac" campaign is inherently anti-Microsoft--every single installment features John Hodgman as the doofusy PC. The golden age of the series was the Vista era--here's an ad focusing on that OS's notoriously maddening User Account Control prompts.

Yet as it had done with Windows 95 a decade earlier, Apple simultaneously ran ads trashing Vista and ones saying that Macs made fabulous Vista machines. This one happens to involve a phone call to a publication you may have heard about.

Here's another commercial from Japan--this one subtitled for your convenience--that's a remake of an American ad. (Who knew that Eurobeat was the Adult Contemporary of Japanese musical genres?)

From time to time, Apple would take a breather from beating up on Microsoft to beat up on Intel. Here's a late-1990s ad showing the Pentium II as being literally sluggish, and another dedicated to steamrolling a conveniently arrayed lineup of Intel-based laptops (the first one to go looks to be a ThinkPad).

In 2005, Apple announced that it was switching its entire Mac line to Intel processors, ensuring that the chipmaker would henceforth be spared Apple's marketing wrath. One suspects, however, that as long as there are Macs and Windows PCs, Apple will continue to taunt Microsoft.

More Microsoft Bashing

Apple has made by far the largest number of anti-Microsoft ads of any competing company, but other software purveyors occasionally chime in. Longtime Redmond bête noire (and recent Oracle purchase) Sun Microsystems created this Jacques Cousteau satire--I'm not sure whether it ever aired on TV--showing the Blue Screen of Death at its deadliest. Unfortunately, like Bernard, we never get a glimpse of "ze raire Sumatran sea badgaire."

On a similar note, when Microsoft launched Windows XP with an ad showing XP users soaring to Madonna music, networking company Novell responded with a parody showing a poor lad crashing (get it?) to earth.

Much more recently, Google promoted its Google Apps online suite with intentionally cryptic billboards in major cities. Some played up the disadvantages of traditional software in general. But in case you couldn't figure out which traditional software company the Google was talking about, check out the reference to Patch Tuesday in this online ad showing all the billboards.

Target: Atari

In the early 1980s. Atari's VCS 2600 console dominated at-home videogaming to a degree that no company has equaled since. Not surprisingly, a sizable number of ads for other manufacturers's systems attempted to make the case that they were better than Atari.

At the time, Mattel hired Out of My League and Paper Lion author George Plimpton to serve as spokesman for its Intellivision game system. Presumably the company sought out Plimpton because of his writing about real-world sports. (It surely wasn't because he was a videogame expert--I doubt that the guy could tell Donkey Kong Jr. from Dig-Dug in a police lineup.) Plimpton spent much of his on-air time snarking at the low-grade graphics of Atari's 2600 games.

Here he is comparing Intellivision's sports games to Atari's. A quarter-century later, a viewer's immediate reaction to the ad is likely to be "Geez, all of them look abysmal!" But if you weren't playing videogames back then, trust me: The Intellivision versions were impressive.

In this spot, George interrupts a nerdy kid doing an Atari pitch to extoll the virtues of Intellivision's space games, including the faux Space Invaders game Space Armada and the "incredible" Astrosmash.

ColecoVision had better graphics than either the Atari 2600 or Intellivision, but the point of this ad was that it was more expandable than Atari's consoles. You could, for instance, convert it into an Adam home computer--a system later reviled as one of the worst PCs of all time.

By the mid-1980s, the Atari age was over--and with it videogame advertising's most intensely combative era. Here's a Nintendo-mocking ad for 1989's popular Sega Genesis console with an insanely catchy jingle. Verizon's recent Droid Does/iDon't ad was practically a remake of this one.

Commodore vs. the World

In the early 1980s, Commodore was a computer company with a chip (pun unintentional) on its shoulder: Nearly all of its ads were devoted to arguing that its machines were cheaper and/or better than the competition's. It hired a pre-ironic Bill Shatner--and used, um, lavish special effects--to argue that the VIC-20 was a "wonder computer of the 1980s" rather than a game machine like Atari and Intellivsion.

In his autobiography, Shatner cheerfully admits that he knew nothing about computers when this ad appeared, and that his entire experience with the VIC-20 consisted of plugging two of them in so that he couldn't be accused of never having used them. These days, he's Twittering up a storm (at this writing, 13 tweets in the past two months alone)--though presumably not on a VIC-20.

By 1982, Commodore's main machine was the Commodore 64, so named because its whopping 64KB of memory was its primary (only?) selling point. This 1982 ad comparing the C64 to the Apple II may be the first TV spot ever to target Steve Jobs's company, but its message--that Commodore offers better specs than Apple at a much lower price--is the same one that Microsoft employed 27 years later in its "Laptop Hunter" ads.

Here's a similar ad, but this one takes on Apple and IBM--and reminds us that in the early '80s, computing was a revolution that most Americans hadn't yet experienced personally.

Sharper--and Obsolete

There are times when you have to wonder whether going negative in tech advertising is bad karma. This Sony ad for its Betamax VCRs--aired not long before VHS decisively won the format wars--is an example.

Always Off Line

Back in 1997, AOL was wildly popular--and practically synonymous with the busy signals that users frequently encountered when they tried to dial in. In fact, all archrival CompuServe had to do to evoke AOL's woes was to play busy signals over a blank screen during this 1997 Super Bowl ad--no explicit mention of AOL necessary.

The ad attracted plenty of attention, but did it help CompuServe's competitive position? Not enough, apparently: Later that year, AOL gobbled it up--and then spent the next few years frittering away its acquisition's once formidable reputation and customer base.

Wal-Marted!

Tweeter was a venerable Boston-based electronics dealer that overexpanded into multiple regions, went bankrupt in 2007, and shuttered all its stores at the end of 2008. Part of the problem for Tweeter, as for every other electronics retailer that has failed in recent years, was intense competition from the behemoth of Bentonville--better known as Wal-Mart. Before Tweeter folded, it tried to take on Wal-Mart directly in this ad (circa 2006). Chris, the Tweeter spokesguy, may be cocky, but I sense that deep down inside he knows his days are numbered.

User-Generated Discontent

In 2006, Mozilla held a contest for user-created Firefox ads, screening the top-rated entries at a movie theater during the San Francisco International Film Festival. This one got massive laughs and applause--even though its only message seems to be "Other browsers suck!"

Mob Job

In 2007, Kodak got into the inkjet printer business, priced its cartridges attractively, and paid for a blitz of ads that accused other printer companies of charging too much for ink. Both HP and Canon squawked that the ads were misleading and tried to get them yanked--and HP still seems rather touchy about the whole topic of Kodak printers.

I don't think this online commercial, starring Vincent Pastore of The Sopranos, is among the ones that Kodak's rivals lodged formal complaints against--but it's so irresistibly dark, mean, and funny that it strikes the right note on which to end this roundup.

Harry McCracken, former editor in chief of PCWorld, now blogs at his own site, Technologizer.

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