Why Are Mobile Device Ads So Bad?

It has become fashionable to praise Apple's serene iPhone ads and rail against its competitors advertising, with Verizon Wireless' obnoxious DROID and LTE ads drawing particular ire. In case you don't watch any television or live outside the U.S., the Verizon Wireless ads include women battling cyborgs (this has to do with smartphones how, exactly?), people skydiving and firebombing cities with lightning balls (shouldn't Homeland Security be intervening?), and unidentified objects slicing through cities (not an ad for a disaster movie, but a visual pun for the DROID RAZR). Meanwhile, Apple's ads calmly explain the latest features and apps, sometimes with bold adjectives ("magical," much?) but an even tone and methodical manner.

There may be fanbois hyping Siri, but its ads just show what she can do (when the server is up). I've been calling Apple's iPhone ads "30 second tutorials," and they're fantastic. They not only show you what the iPhone can do for you, but how easy it would be for you to do those things yourself if you only had an iPhone. In contrast, Verizon Wireless' ads are ridiculous, and most of the time have nothing to do with the products they purportedly are selling.

The DROID ads may be bad at highlighting individual phones – and do nothing for the merits of Android overall – but they have been effective at getting consumers' attention and serve as useful indicators that this is a product line consumers should be aware of. The DROID line has been extremely successful because of, not despite the ads. DROID-branded phones sell better than the non-DROID-labeled Android phones sitting right next to them on the shelf. Verizon Wireless measures its advertising effectiveness regularly and has found that it has done such a good job promoting the DROID brand that people walk into AT&T and Sprint stores and ask for a DROID phone, not an "Android" phone. Now, I don't like these ads, either, but Verizon Wireless isn't stupid, and it keeps running them because they work.

[aquote]The ad for HTC's Rhyme is downright creepy, but pales next to Sony Ericsson's severed thumb[/aquote]

It's easy to extend the criticism of Verizon Wireless' ads to all of Apple's competitors – there certainly have been some doozies. Palm did itself no favors with its ads for a vampire movie (supposedly an ad for the original Pre). The ad for HTC's Rhyme is downright creepy, but even that pales next to Sony Ericsson's 2011 Super Bowl ad, which featured a severed thumb. Microsoft's first Windows Phone ads were memorable, but conveyed the wrong message: they implied that you can get stuff done quickly with a Windows Phone, but you'll never love it as much as an iPhone.

But not all mobile advertising is bad. Samsung's Galaxy S II TV spot is pretty good; it can be summed up as, "our phones have better specs because we're perfectionist geeks." The ad does a good job of humanizing Samsung's brand while highlighting its phone's screen technology, a key product differentiator, and one of the few specifications where consumers easily understand its benefits. HTC's "You" ads were terrific, particularly its original "Anthem" ad, which showed people both happy and upset by things they do and associations they have with their phones – it's rare you see a vendor use negative emotion well. Finally, Nokia's Amazing Everyday campaign (currently running in Europe) is good – the Finns seem to understand how to advertise Windows Phone better than Microsoft itself.

[aquote]Google should be the one promoting its own platform capabilities, but it isn't[/aquote]

Speaking of platform vendors, Google should be the one promoting its own platform capabilities, but it isn't. (Ironically, given how it makes a living, Google doesn't believe in advertising itself much.) Android licensees have shied away from promoting individual Android features for fear of enriching rivals. Instead, they have focused mainly on their own small hardware differences, which ends up appealing only to the small segment of the market that cares about such things.

However, in a vacuum, whoever is first with a strong message can own that message in consumers' minds. Android has great features: rich home screen customization with glance-able information, persistent mapping across your phone and the web, the best Gmail implementation, and more. If a vendor highlighted those abilities, it is quite possible that consumers would not just want to buy any Android phone, but the Android phone from the vendor that they know has those features. They might not even realize that other Android phones can do those things, too.

So why hasn't anyone run ads like that? Partly because they have not been bold enough to do so, fearing that it will not give them meaningful separation from their Android rivals. Some have resisted because, deep down, they don't want to tie their brand indelibly to Google. But that is part of a bigger problem – many device vendors do not have a strong, independent brand identity. That is one of the key reasons Apple can run 30 second tutorials: everybody already knows what Apple's brand stands for. Motorola? All Motorola used to stand for was fashion. That's Ed Zander's fault, and Motorola in the Sanjay Jha era has been too busy trying to survive to effectively redefine the brand.

But Motorola is hardly alone. RIM can't seem to decide if it is primarily a business or consumer brand. What does LG stand for? Pantech? Huawei? To an extent, Apple's rivals need to try to stand out because they need consumers to notice them in the first place. I don't suggest doing that with creepy vampire girls, creepy four-armed women, or Tron refugees battling cyborgs. But I do understand the impulse.