The comparison is obvious: BlackBerry's already-infamous "Can't Do" commercial in this year's Super Bowl vs. Apple's legendary "1984" spot in the 1984 game. Let's do the comparison anyway, and consider some other tech advertising over 35 years of Super Bowls.
BlackBerry is taking scorn for its capricious ad depicting several fantastic scenarios created by, or solved by (it's not always clear what the heck is going on during the montage), the upcoming Z10 smartphone.
Analysis from the commentariat complains that the ad fails to illustrate what the phone can do, which you might think would be good market preparation for its March US debut. Such criticism, though, disregards the traditional role of Super Bowl advertising, which is to make a memorable brand impact. Uninformative, absurd, nonsensical commercials are standard, even expected.
More to the point is the lack of a jolt, big statement, brand shaping, majesty or even pop. I don't mean to pile on; as I've written before, I'm rooting for BlackBerry. But this is where the Z10 commercial suffers a patent and predictable comparison with Apple's "1984." The setup is roughly the same: both commercials are prologues to imminent product launches (the Macintosh in Apple's case). It might seem unfair to contrast any modern commercial with a piece of creative work that has, over time, accrued luster as one of the great TV ads in and out of the Super Bowl. But remember, BlackBerry's CEO said at the BB10 launch event last year "We are at the beginning of a new era of mobile computing." If, now that TV advertising has begun, the product messaging cannot carry forward that level of aggrandizing rhetoric, it is a branding failure.
The truth is that BlackBerry does not have a category-changing product on its hands -- classy, smart and effective though the device is. Did Apple know that the Macintosh would change computing and (arguably) justify the titanic imagery of the "1984" ad? The company was conflicted internally, with execs battling the board, which opposed airing the piece. Notwithstanding the extent to which the Apple ad was a gamble, it reached for the glory of extreme hyperbole, and brazenly set user expectations to the sky. There were no product spec details, but the 60-second drama promised revolution and salvation.
The "Can't Do" ad (dreadful title, by the way) promises only that the Z10 phone can do unspecified things, and too many of them to describe in a commercial. That's a vague dispatch. Other tech commercials are also necessarily concise, but some focus their messages on solving problems.
Amy Poehler's flirtatious energy enlivens Best Buy's pedestrian retail message: the salespeople are helpful. "THANK YOU!" she screams at the end, exiting the store wearing noise-canceling headphones. The spot resonates with an ethos of the venerable ...for Dummies book line -- tech is fun and we can make you understand it.
GoDaddy.com, a veteran of controversial ads, stirred two commercials into this year's stew. The first mocks would-be entrepreneurs who fail to act on their ideas (solution: we make it easy to protect your new trademark). The second veers onto the company's well-trod ground of sexploitation to promote a hybrid view of the brand as both sexy and practical. The service's two sides are cemented by a long kiss between a swimsuit model and a stereotyped geek. A kiss by itself not being sexual enough for GoDaddy's shock tradition, the scene is recorded with a high level of lip slurps. Queue Twitter explosion of disgust.
GoDaddy has stepped into the big game before, but E-Trade is the champion of Super Bowl website advertisers with the placement of seven ads in six games. This year's entry is disappointingly weak and unfunny in my opinion, but look again at the first talking-baby commercial from 2008, with its laconic voicing, low-fi webcam production value, expert editing and surprise ending.
E-Trade placed its first Super Bowl spot in 2000, the bubble year for Web 1.0 ad invasions. The 2000 game featured messages from Buy.com, HotJobs.com, Computer.com, Epidemic.com, LifeMinders.com and the notorious Pets.com spot -- the emblem of the dot-com bust. And while E-Trade is known best for the talking babies which came later (the greatest of which might be this one -- "What, I can't flex the golden pipes?"), in 2001 it presented a remarkable symbolic eulogy of doomed dot-coms from the year before in a commercial called "Ghost Town."
Going back further, the 1976 Super Bowl featured a Xerox ad that set a template for future insouciance and cleverness. Entitled "Monks," the spot depicted a scribe saving his aching hand by machine-copying 500 replicas of an illuminated manuscript -- at two pages per second. ("It's a miracle!") The opening line of the ad's script foretells a good amount of contemporary tech culture: "Ever since people started recording information, there's been a need to duplicate it." Could be an ad for BitTorrent.
Back in this year, SodaStream represented the quirkiest tech ad in the 2013 game. The home-carbonated drink maker put out a confusing environmental message of conserving bottle consumption with DIY beverages. It would have made more sense to introduce this product to millions of new people by emphasizing fun, unique flavors or cost-saving benefits. But we certainly get a splashier commercial when stacked crates of soda in a warehouse suddenly lose their bottles and fizzy liquid pours everywhere.
Samsung had the most delightfully loopy messaging of this year's ad crop in tech, with a couple of loose, self-deprecating, 60-second riffs featuring Paul Rudd and Seth Rogen. They hook into the Galaxy line and its existing "Next big thing" tagline. But the attitude remains too cool to attempt making a point, selling a feature, solving a problem or caring whether we receive a coherent message. The opposite of Apple's long-ago aspirational epic, Samsung's nonchalance also skewers BlackBerry's earnest deflection.
Memo to BB: Get grandiose or get cool, and stop postponing the message.
Brad Hill is a former Vice President at AOL, and the former Director and General Manager of Weblogs, Inc. He waits for baseball.