Negative Tech Ads: A Short History in Video

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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.


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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