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Tech ads 2016: Microsoft best, Apple worst

Commentary: There were a lot of ads. Many sniped at competitors. Some, though, lost their way.

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.


They did it right.

Microsoft/YouTube screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

If I asked you to tell me about all the tech ads you've seen this year, I wonder how many you'd remember at all.

Our attention spans are even shorter than our tempers these days. We block ads. We mute them. We disdain them. How many ads, though, still get through and somehow make us feel something, anything?

In my life-addled case, not too many.

In reviewing what tech companies put out -- in terms of "conventional" advertising in 2016 -- I was surprised how few took risks and how many still preferred to carp at a competitor.

What follows is, of course, a highly subjective view of tech ads in a year that so many would love to end.

But in looking at ad after ad, it seems that -- more than ever -- they're statements of confidence, as much as they're tools of sales.

Confidence isn't, however, empty bravado. And that's where Apple -- which perpetrated one of my favorite ads this year -- also slipped into self-regarding puffery a little too often.

Let's save the best for first

Let's start with the good And, seeing as we just mentioned Cupertino, let's start with Apple. The most affecting, but not affected, Apple ad this year was a work of art that celebrated the European Soccer Championships. It so perfectly rendered the humanity and deep joy of the game. And it was all shot by iPhone users on their gadgets.

Other tech ads that lifted my spirits included the marvelous campaign from Girls Who Code. It captured all of the stereotypes held by men and stuffed them straight down their complacent gullets. (Sample line: "When I'm not menstruating, I'm ovulating. So there's no time to code at all."

Amazon, too, offered social commentary in an excellent ad that included the product but didn't over-include it. This was a tale of a Christian priest, an imam, their knees and some hope.

Google offered a simple, moving spot against bullying during the Oscars broadcast. A rock, some paper and a pair of scissors became friends. You see, anything is possible.

Mostly, tech organizations seemed to do their best work when raising issues or celebrating events, rather than selling products.

One of the best product-selling achievements came from Spotify. It offered a very amusing billboard campaign that actually made big data seem useful for a change. (Sample headline: "Dear person who made a playlist called: 'One Night Stand With Jeb Bush Like He's a Bond Girl in a European Casino.' We have so many questions.")

Samsung did well with Lil' Wayne pouring champagne on his Galaxy S7, until the Note 7 started blowing up and people poured scorn all over the brand.

I give my ad of the year to something that isn't, on the surface, the most inventive campaign idea at all. It's the YouTube video for Microsoft's Surface Studio. But this is why it moved me. Here was a product that was, arguably (but please don't argue with me now), the most exciting piece of hardware produced this year.

On the other hand, this was Microsoft. And the last time it created a very different piece of hardware -- the original Surface -- it sold it (or didn't) using teeny dancers in one of most dizzily painful wastes of work and lucre I've ever seen.

Now, here was Redmond saying nothing and showing everything. Pictures and music delivered something that made many sit and stare -- more than 10 million and counting on YouTube. This was both stylish and confident. And, because I can visualize the myriad mistakes old Microsoft would have made with this ad, I doff it my cap of glory.

The in-betweeners, cellphone providers

As ads come and go, cellphone companies stick around. Like skittish monkeys in a cage, they toss, um, mud at each other. I confess to mostly enjoying it.

Sprint actually hired the old Verizon "Can You Hear Me Now? spokesman, who proceeded to claim that his old employers were a bunch of miserable whiners.

In turn, Verizon released ads that said the "Hear Me Now" tagline was completely irrelevant because no one talks on the phone anymore.

T-Mobile had to do something about this. So it started going on about how useless Verizon's data plans are. Yes, with stars such as Nicki Minaj.

Meanwhile, AT&T looked at all this and tried to stay on the sidelines. Instead, it created a very moving campaign against texting and driving.

I'd like to thank all these companies for at least deciding not to be dull, each in their own ways.

The worst, at last

There were many. Razer was especially memorable for knocking the MacBook Pro with the "humor" of a prepubescent adolescent.

There was Samsung, which wanted you to believe that a fridge was an excellent location for an orgy. The company also wanted to convince you that real men wear Samsung watches. Of course, they do.

Who could not weep at PayPal attempting to claim it was the "new money," while insulting Benjamin Franklin? Somewhere, Satoshi Yakamoto snorted over a beer.

IBM, for some reason, got into bed with Bob Dylan. Art wasn't consummated.

HTC actually had the misguided notion of mocking Apple's "1984" ad. It didn't go well.

Who could not marvel without wonder at Microsoft insisting that the MacBook was as useful as a hat for a cat?

Now that we've mentioned the MacBook, it seems time for Apple's little disappointments. Perhaps it's because the company has made relatively few outright mistakes with ads that some just struck one with a dollop of "Oh? Um, really? No. Really?"

There was the ad that claimed the new (and disappointing) MacBook Pro is at the pinnacle of great ideas. It's one thing to be confident. It's another to dabble in fake news.

There was the sudden brainwave that the iPad Pro was now a computer, something that Apple had resolutely resisted. This gave Microsoft an easy opportunity to mock Apple. It did, Apple-style.

Cupertino also offered us an opulently confusing ad for iPhone 7, featuring a man, a phone, a dive and a damp squib.

Perhaps the oddest departure into, well, I don't know, was an Apple Music ad in which Apple's Senior Vice President of Internet Software and Services Eddy Cue actually appeared and acted with less aplomb than Martin Scorsese would wish.

Perhaps it's trying to imagine any Apple executive in Steve Jobs' time appearing in an ad that makes this all fall beneath the waterline of belief.

There were worse individual tech ads than any of these, of course. But it's this cumulative lack of focus and inspiration that somehow brings Apple to my bottom, as it were. Some would argue that this is reflected in the products currently, too.

Apple's standards have always been so sharp and so meticulous that its ad output this year too often seemed neither of those things.

Similarly, with Microsoft, the ad expectations have generally been low. This time, at least in one instance, Redmond excelled.

You can argue with me now.