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Increasingly, tech companies use video to present themselves. Really bad video.

Whenever I start to worry that the suits have taken over all the tech companies and that nothing remains of the vision of the nerdy founders, I look at the way these companies present themselves, and I am reassured. Because the only way those commercials and product demo videos can be that bad is if engineers are writing them.

Video is the new thing. No, really. Kinda. Let me explain. Some of you may be old enough to remember when companies presented themselves and their products by mailing press releases to the news media. More of you will remember the crazy old days when the company Website was the medium of choice for companies to present themselves. That was back before they discovered that where they really needed to be was on Facebook. Or in Second Life. Or that the company could best be presented by letting the employees blog about it. All brilliant ideas, as any fool can plainly see. But increasingly these days, companies are presenting themselves and their products through video. Yes, you in the front row with your hand up, video predates the Web, so it can’t be new. What is new is how easy it is to produce video today. Which of course means a lot of really bad video. So that’s what’s new. Constant progress. Makes you proud.

And we’re not just talking about commercials. We’re talking about technology demo videos hacked together by some twisted nerd in the lab. At least I am. I draw this distinction, by the way, for the sake of any corporate types reading this. Those suits think that commercials and hacked-together jokey videos by the lab team are different things, and who am I to disillusion them? The rest of you are perfectly aware that most people will encounter both these things as videos on YouTube, so there really is no difference. But the suits invested in those commercials, so let them think what they need to think. Life is too short to face facts.

Video has some close cousins in the family of product presentation media. You’ve got your PowerPoint presentations, your TED talk, your Demo demo, your performance art piece. You’ve got that annoying icon that pops up when the user is having difficulty with your software and offers bad advice. Whatever the medium, it’s possible to use it to send potential customers running for the exits. As can be demonstrated....

Viral Video and Other Diseases of the Eye

The most annoying commercial on television today may be that Staples commercial where they guy keeps screaming about low prices, but tech companies are fully capable of producing stuuningly obnoxious or clueless video.

For some reason a lot of people complain about those Cisco commercials featuring Ellen Page. I don’t know what their problem is. I know that when I’m in the market for network equipment, I’m going to check Ellen’s Facebook page for her recommendations, because nobody knows more about routers than an actress best known for playing a teen-aged unwed mother. My issue with the commercials is that I imagine some executive in a marketing meeting saying, “Let’s get that spacey Ellen What’s-her-name from the Apple Switcher commercials. We make switches. And I remember she was popular for some reason.”

Another commercial that a lot of people make fun of is the one for the BT Slimtel. Cheesy music, dancers in leotards, zero connection to the product except the claim that it let you redial the last number dialed by pressing one button. But you have to cut them some slack: they’re British. It’s a nation of nerds.

Sometimes bad can be good. YouTube came out with a new video editor and got the brilliant Yeshmin Blechin to explain it. I’ll go so far as to say that that may be one of the best video product demos I’ve ever seen. And that’s pretty far. One thing that the video demonstrates clearly is that YouTube is not Microsoft.

Why Are Microsoft’s Commercials So Bad?

I think an argument could be made that, frame for frame, Microsoft produces more crappy tech product video than any other tech company. I have a theory about why Microsoft has such trouble presenting itself. It’s because Apple did such a great job of defining them in those “I’m a Mac... and I’m a PC” ads. The John Hodgeman character is an accurate representation of one facet of Microsoft. To be fair, there are other facets. But the Hodgeman facet is the most appealing.

That might explain the Seinfeld commercials. Personally, I don’t see Jerry Seinfeld as Justin Long, but if I pretend I’m a marketing executive at Microsoft and squint just right, I think it makes a grotesque kind of sense. If you buy that, then the purpose of the commercials was to show the PC character (played by Bill Gates) being accepted as a friend and equal by the Mac character. I mean, the commercials must have had some purpose, and I haven’t heard any other explanation.

If you don’t like that, I have another theory, also involving Apple. Apple does such a great job of defining itself that you lose by comparison if you try to emulate their image crafting. So you have to define yourself out of the space that Apple leaves. Stay clear of the image Apple claims for itself: elite, cool, stylish, smart, easy. Anything else is fair game.

Which ought to work well for Microsoft, since its target market actually is everything non-Apple. So they self-define as the company of awkward geeks who develop products for people with no taste.

If that theory is correct, then Microsoft’s ads don’t deserve to be trashed as bad advertising. Bad art, yes. But I’ll go ahead and trash them anyway, because my theory is probably wrong. They usually are.

What’s the worst Microsoft product video ever? Many would point to that promo for Microsoft Songsmith. Awkward, geeky, and it characterizes Microsoft’s customers as talentless losers. Dad’s in a sucky job, but his tone-deaf daughter saves him by showing him how a Microsoft product is just what he needs to compose a jingle worthy of the crappy product he’s hired to promote. Wonder where they came up with that idea. The title of that video, by the way, seems to be, “Everyone Has a Song Inside.” And that’s a fine place for it.

But the O.M.G.I.G.P. commercial directed by Bobcat Goldthwait is a tough competitor. The failure of that video isn’t that it’s gross, it’s the picture it paints of Microsoft’s customers. Your husband, the video tells its women customers, is watching porno online that is so disgusting that it will make you puke. You’ll puke three times. Well, that and the fact that we are left trying to imagine something really disgusting, and the memory of that image is what we will think of the next time we hear the phrase “Internet Explorer.”

Talk about a video that cries out to be redone in 3-D, though.

My choice? An early video for Microsoft Kinect. You won’t find it at that link. The video’s been removed and I can’t find it anywhere. It’s not inherently worse than the Songsmith video, but I give it higher marks partly because the technology is actually pretty interesting. But leave it to Microsoft to take an interesting technology and sell it like processed cheese spread.

The message seems to be, “The family that dances together awkwardly on the shag carpeting in the family room stays together, because let’s face it, who else is going to spend time with these losers?” I especially like the bit at the end with Dad slumped in his recliner, gesturing like a mime trapped in an invisible box.

Which is an appropriate metaphor, because the people in the video seem to be trapped in the box. Controlling cartoons with their bodies, they seem to be turning into cartoons. Does driving a cartoon avatar with your movements cause you to move like a cartoon, as the people in this video do? Will the phenomenon extend beyond the game? Will Kinekt users be permanently Mario’d?

The director of this little gem may not be the Uwe Boll of product videos, but he’s in the running.

I said that a tech company can’t emulate Apple’s approach to representing itself, but of course it can. One excellent example of how this works out is that notorious Palm Pre video Is Palm’s target market really eyebrowless vegan mystics? Or did a Palm executive commission an Apple-like ad from an agency that had nothing but scorn for Apple?

It’s Not Bad, It’s Art

Then there’s performance art as product promotion. Both IBM and Sony have paid grafitti artists to deface city streets. It didn’t end well either time. You wouldn’t think that after you seeing another big tech company embarrass itself publicly with a half-witted publicity stunt, your reaction would be, “Wow! We gotta do that!”, but you’d be failing to reckon with the level of hoof-in-mouth at Sony.

Still, grafitti is not in the same realm of stupidity as setting up a launch event that involves a dead goat. Sony again.

Microsoft is better known for atrociously bad commercials and demo videos—and PowerPoint presentations and sales meeting pep talks by Steve Ballmer channeling that gorilla in the suitcase commercial—than for performance art catastrophes, but it’s pretty hard to top Bill Gates releasing a horde of live, hungry mosquitos on the audience at a TED conference. Angelina Jolie was among the victims. Yep, she of the bee-stung lips left TED with a mosquito-bit something. I can’t be more specific because the particular part of her anatomy that got bit was left out of the story. What passes for journalism today.

Let me leave you with this example of art imitating life, if life is a transcendently catastrophic software demo. If you enjoy it as much as I did, I apologize.

John Shade was born in Montreux, Switzerland on a cloudy day in 1962. Subsequent internment in a series of obscure institutions of ostensibly higher learning did nothing to brighten his outlook. John would like to apologize to Joe Barton. Also to joebartonwouldliketoapologize.com.

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