The year in tech ads: Verizon was best, but who was worst?

2014 proved that every utterance of a company constitutes an ad. But which were the most memorably positive and which simply hurt?

Chris Matyszczyk
5 min read
Dad doesn't want his daughter to use the drill. Dad is very annoying. Verizon/YouTube screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

Social media has made advertising all the lovelier.

Now that Facebook and Twitter are permanent billboards that regurgitate ads by the second, brands have the opportunity to nag you more often and more insistently than your very worst former lover.

But love is still something that not all tech brands understand. They invent a gizmo, and they want to explain -- sometimes even disdainfully -- why their gizmo is the very best.

We, though, are merely larger-sized children. We just want to be excited, without having to think too much. We want things for free, regardless of how this might impinge on our being human. We want to be loved, without having to make a great effort to love anyone else.

Love me because I am, not because of what I am.

Thankfully, I didn't get to see every single tech ad of 2014. Or perhaps I did, and too many were so instantly forgettable that it merely feels like they never existed.

However, in attempting to look back, I have limited myself to those tech brand communications that left some kind of mark on my addled innards, rather than those that merely stood there and wailed like a baby on a six-hour flight.

I use the word "communications" deliberately. Everything a brand does and says is, in some sense, an ad. Everything a brand emits is, in some way, meant to make you feel better about that brand and make you want to buy its product.

It's odd, then, that the brand that made me feel most positive was Verizon. I think of Verizon as a large, quasi-political organization that machinates behind the scenes far more than on the stage.

So I found its ad highlighting the need to make tech more attractive to women a beautiful surprise.

The company found one startling statistic -- 66 percent of fourth-grade girls say they like science and math. A mere 18 percent of college engineering majors are female -- and turned it into a poignant examination of parenting, society and the chasm between who we claim to be and who we actually are.

I must have been moved more this year by companies that behaved against type. That's why when Microsoft took to its Facebook page to admire a short film that featured MacBooks, my eyebrows were as happy as Pharrell's hat.

True, Microsoft denied its post was an ad. Some people struggle with accepting praise. In this case, it's heartening that Redmond can see it needs to embrace so much more of the way real people use hardware and software.

Then there was EA. A company that was voted the worst in America can't find it that easy to incite positive feelings. But I found myself entirely beguiled by an insane thing it released to launch its latest "Madden" game. Featuring Kevin Hart, it was an ad, a movie and an expectoration of sudden confidence.

Call of Duty managed to be peculiarly serious and inspiring. The Call of Duty Endowment, an Activision Blizzard-sponsored nonprofit, released a simple ad in which military veterans explained how difficult it was for them to get a job after returning from war.

Perhaps it's easier for a brand to advertise its charitable side. Some might be pleasantly surprised that Call Of Duty has one.

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    Motorola was another company that managed to break through the monotony of life with its highly entertaining attempt to make its Moto 360 watch captivating. The mockery of traditional watch ads was played with minimalist fervor and perfect populist timing.

    There were fascinating ads from Canon and JBL headphones. But what about the Apple/Samsung/Microsoft axis? Here's where most of the fascinating bile is usually communicated.

    Apple decided again to rise as far above the fray as it was able. It began the year well and poetically for the iPad. It ended the year with a wonderfully played Christmas ad that surely brought tears from even most hardened heart (that didn't belong to a fanperson from another brand).

    Microsoft and Samsung both tried to remind people of just how awful Apple products are. In Microsoft's case, it managed to plumb the heights of suggesting that Macs are useless when you're planning a wedding. Oh.

    Samsung, on the other hand, lurched into a peculiar schizophrenia. Its suggestion that iPhone batteries are embarrassing was played in a very pleasing and persuasive way.

    However, the more Apple began to release new products, the more Samsung reacted witlessly. Its headquarters released ads mocking Apple's keynote that were heavy-handed. And then there was the splendidly tone-deficient Samsung ad that suggested its Note was a secretary in a short skirt.

    A company that had begun the year with perhaps the most famous ad of all -- its Oscars selfie stunt -- was showing a lack of confidence, as its business hit troubled times.

    You can tell I'm drifting toward the worst of the worst, can't you? So I suppose this is the time to just admit that one ad, whenever I saw it, made my nostrils flare like those of a horse that's having its hemorrhoids removed without anesthetic.

    This ad was for the Amazon Fire phone. I like Amazon a lot. Its customer service is exceptional. However, this felt like the equivalent of a satanist, a Scientologist, a fundamentalist and an Anglican vicar meeting to issue a joint statement about religion.

    Here was a phone that Amazon was terribly excited about. So it gave us two 9-year-olds who had gone out to lunch on their own somewhere in Beverly Hills. For all I know, 9-year-olds in Beverly Hills are out to lunch all the time. Perhaps no amount of Ritalin can prevent this.

    Still, when these two 9-year-olds began to explain to two ladies who lunch why this phone is so wonderful, my eyes twisted 180 degrees in order to examine what was happening in my head.

    It wasn't merely that the little 9-year-old girl was reading Sheryl Sandberg's "Lean In" on her new phone.

    It was that this soggy watermelon of an ad was trying to tell me this: "Hey dumb adult, little kids know more about technology than dumb adults. So, dumb adult, buy this phone and you won't be such a dumb adult."

    The logic, such as it was, defeated me, appalled me, pained me and made me roll around on my deck for several hours, screaming the lyrics to several Bay City Rollers songs. It took several doses of my favorite cabernet sauvignon to bring me back to (relative) sanity.

    Ads shouldn't do this. Even lovers should only do this occasionally.

    Sometimes, though, bad ads still sell a good product.

    On the other hand, how did this phone do? Oh, not very well.