Tech ads of 2017: Call of Duty best, Facebook worst

Commentary: A look back at how tech companies tried to communicate in 2017 offers many sobering moments. And some that boggle the mind.

Chris Matyszczyk
5 min read

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

Facebook on smartphones and tv's

A lot of work to be done.


Communication has rarely been tech companies' strong point.

Many prefer you to do it, rather than bother themselves with its dastardly nuances. 

Still, a look across the ways tech brands tried to stir emotions this year reveals a little more of the bad than the good.

One thing almost every tech company was keen on this year was to show its politically correct credentials.

This effort was sometimes less than whole when reality bit.

Audi, for example, stormed into the Super Bowl with a message about equal pay. 

Then it emerged that Audi's six-person executive team enjoyed precisely zero female members.

Airbnb also tried a Super Bowl message about acceptance. Later in the year, the company agreed to the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing policing the site for racial discriminators.

Some managed to present their politically progressive stances with more success. 

Ancestry.com, for example, offered a little light amid the political twilight with an ad explaining that America has been diverse right back to the days of the Declaration of Independence.

Microsoft, too, did its best to claim its was enlightened. 

Redmond could, however, only boast modest diversity gains. You know, in real life.

Samsung, too, wanted in on the saintliness, with an ad that suggested that all religions are equal and New York apartment doormen are holier than most people.

It's probably not a good time to mention that Samsung's de facto leader Jay Y. Lee was sentenced to five years in jail for bribery, embezzlement and perjury.

Stepping outside of the socio-political realm, very few tech ads moved to the heavens. 

Samsung India did enjoy more than 150 million YouTube views with a highly affecting ad about, well, caring.

Perhaps the most controversial ad of all came from Samsung, too.

This was the one in which it suggested Apple has been an utter incompetent for the last 10 years, as the iPhone has always been behind the times.

It's a wonder Apple has survived at all, isn't it? 

Perhaps this ad reassured Samsung owners and reminded people that the company existed in the middle of so much iPhone X hype. 

It was enjoyable, but I still wonder whether viewers saw through the cracks. After all, when the iPhone first came out, Samsung phones weren't exactly the apogee of sexy.

Somehow, I felt most moved by a simple little thing from Activision

To launch "Call of Duty: World War II," it offered a tale of those who used to game together coming back for one last fling. 

There were no battles, no shooting, no killing, no aggression (save for someone being kicked out of a pub in the UK version). It was all refreshingly uplifting and amusing.

I've delayed the not so good for as long as I could. There were many.

Apple still seems to struggle in creating something fresh and inventive. No, I'm not talking about the products. I mean the ads.

It even managed to be caught up in an ad for Apple Music's "Planet of the Apps" show that suggested you should forget your kids and focus on getting rich quick.

Cupertino seemed often to reach for the bland and inoffensive, rather than something arresting. Its holiday ad, for example, which was lamely icky. Especially if you care about ear hygiene. 

Equally painful was Cupertino and the Rock attempting to hype an event that appeared to be a movie that co-starred Siri.

It turned out to be a long ad that didn't make the thumbs even twitch, never mind go up. 

Samsung, though, wasn't without its faux pas. Its ad featuring a couple falling in love and somehow already knowing each other's phone numbers before they ever met moved me to teeth-gritting every time I saw it.

Somehow, though, two campaigns placed themselves in my craw and stayed to the point that they got in the way of my swallowing all my pierogi at Christmas.

Oddly, both came from Facebook.

The second-worst campaign of the year wasn't a series of ads that ran on YouTube. It was a series of meetings that happened live, all over America.

I refer to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wandering around America trying to meet real human beings

This sadly choreographed attempt at getting down with the people served only to emit an unctuousness I've not endured since a Neiman Marcus salesman tried to foist upon me a silk cravat. 

Here was Mark on a farm. There was Mark meeting firemen. Some may have voted for Donald Trump.

Hi, I'm Mark. See, I'm human just like you. Tell me about you!

It was all about as sincere and spontaneous as a bag of monkey nuts.

Some worried that this tour suggested Zuckerberg harbored political ambitions. However, as Axios reported on Thursday, this was Facebook's CEO trying to polish the company's brand image in the face of strong criticism of its role in fostering fake news and the threat of regulation.

Which is why my Worst Ad of The Year also featured Zuckerberg. It showed that he -- and by extension Facebook --  has learned little from his tour about how to treat and appeal to real humans. 

Where other highly nerdy companies such as Google have grasped that communication with real people involves emitting believable, warm feelings that make those humans feel good, Facebook remains in a sad metal box. 

In October, the company released video featuring  Zuckerberg and the company's head of social VR, Rachel Rubin Franklin demonstrating Oculus's VR capabilities.

I confess that I stared at it in pained disbelief.

As their avatars casually gazed over images of Puerto Rico's hurricane devastation, the two executives merrily chatted about the coolness of VR. They even high-fived. 

This was gross in its myopia and hideous in its attempt to make Facebook seem somehow, oh, what exactly? Progressive?

Zuckerberg subsequently admitted this may have not enjoyed a sense of empathy. This seems a Facebook-wide problem.

I regret to say that of all the tech companies that come to mind, only Uber has a more taxing job in attaining a level of brand civilization in 2018.

I trust, however, that your next year will be bounteously civilized and filled with excellent human feelings.

Thank you for all your emails and messages, even the ones that told me to get a [insert expletive here] life. 

I'm trying. Honestly, I'm trying.