15 of the worst tech marketing and PR moments ever

When serious persuasion goes seriously wrong.

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When disaster strikes…

…it can be very, very funny, as long as said disaster is happening in the high-pressure world of tech PR and marketing. Technology, as a sector, tends to take itself very seriously, so the results of tech companies trying to appeal to its idea of the average consumer can get pretty absurd. Here are a few of our favorites.

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Credit: WikipediaPublic Domain
Thomas Edison electrocutes an elephant because he’s a jerk

Let’s start early – In an attempt to dramatize the idea that alternating current is more dangerous than direct current, Thomas Edison had an elephant electrocuted at Coney Island in 1903. What a jerk. And it didn’t help – AC pretty much won the war of the currents.

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Credit: Thinkstock
Convar Deutschland actually mails out fake bombs

Along with a note reading “time is running out,” Convar Deutschland shipped promotional packages that looked like time bombs to 40 businesses, embassies and even a newsroom in Germany in 2012. The cops, as you might expect, got involved, and Convar had to give a pretty abject verzeihung.

Apple just shoves a dumb U2 album into your iTunes
Credit: Dylan TweneyWikipediaCC BY 2.0
Apple just shoves a dumb U2 album into your iTunes

As part of the promotional work for the iPhone 6 in 2014, Apple forcibly inserted a copy of U2’s “Songs of Innocence” album into everybody’s iTunes library. It’s hard to figure why U2 thought that giving away millions of copies of an album would help sales, or why Apple thought people would be ok with getting unwanted music shoved in their faces like a perfume sample.

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LifeLock CEO posts his SSN on billboards, is somehow surprised when his identity is stolen

Give LifeLock CEO Todd Davis credit for putting his money where his mouth is – he published his real Social Security number in 2007 advertising for the company’s anti-identity theft services. The result? Davis’ identity was compromised a reported 13 times. (Also, the FTC has beaten up on LifeLock on several occasions, alleging that the company’s advertising far outstrips its actual capabilities.)

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OnePlus gets creepy with “ladies first”

Upstart smartphone maker OnePlus, in 2014, ran a promotion where women could get early access to the company’s new One phone, as long as they were willing to post a selfie with the OnePlus logo visible and submit it to the judgment of OnePlus forum dwellers. It’s funny, if you listen closely while the announcement is open in your browser, you can actually hear creepy heavy breathing. (OnePlus pulled the program within hours and apologized.)

Research in Motion wants to talk jobs, creates instantly regrettable hashtag
Credit: Andrew MaimanWikipediaCC BY SA 3.0
Research in Motion wants to talk jobs, creates instantly regrettable hashtag

Like many of the tech world’s most brow-furrowingly unbelievable marketing mistakes, it’s tough to see how nobody at Research in Motion in 2012 noticed that the hashtag the company was using to talk about job opportunities was #RIMjobs. No wonder they changed the name in 2013.

Comcast throws shade at Google Fiber – and misses horribly
Comcast throws shade at Google Fiber – and misses horribly

Sure, you’re one of the most-loathed companies in America, so any time you can get people focused on somebody else, it’s great – but Comcast’s poorly conceived swipe at Google Fiber in the wake of the latter’s service outages during a World Series game last week did nothing but incite further mockery and scorn. (H/T: BGR)

Panasonic’s just SO EXCITED to tell you about its new computer
Panasonic’s just SO EXCITED to tell you about its new computer

Panasonic is a historic company – it was founded in 1918 to manufacture lightbulb sockets – but it’s never really cracked the code on the mainstream home computing market in the U.S. Part of the reason for this difficulty is marketing – one of the company’s early attempts to break into the U.S. market (in the 1990s) was called the Woody. Like, for Woody Woodpecker. It had a touchscreen, and people were urged to “touch Woody.” Anyway, they mostly do Toughbooks now.

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Credit: AlkivarWikipediaCC BY-SA 3.0/ Thinkstock
Aqua Teen Hunger Force makes Boston friggin’ PANIC, dude

This is a famous one – Turner Broadcasting got fined $2 million and fired the head of the Cartoon Network after glowing neon signs placed around Boston in January 2007 caused mass panic when they were mistaken for possible explosive devices. Admittedly, these were glowing neon signs of reasonably well-known cartoon characters that looked like homemade Lite-Brites, so it’s not so much a terrible marketing decision as it was an overreaction on the part of local authorities, but still, quite the fiasco.

Dell dresses up marketing types like masked gunmen, you’ll never guess how that turned out
Credit: Dell, via ITWorldCanada
Dell dresses up marketing types like masked gunmen, you’ll never guess how that turned out

Unless you guessed “two of them got arrested and thankfully nobody got shot by a worried cop with a real gun.” In 2011, as an internal promotion for Dell Streak tablets, one marketing guy ran through the company’s Round Rock, Texas, offices shouting for people to go to the lobby. While carrying “small metallic items,” according to the Austin American Statesman.

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Credit: HolekWikipediaCC BY-SA 3.0
Watch Dogs sends ticking objects out as marketing promos

It’s kind of amazing that, in this day and age, marketing types can still occasionally manage to convince themselves that something like this is OK: The people hyping deeply overhyped 2014 videogame Watch Dogs mailed a small safe to Aussie news organization ninemsn, which started ticking and prompted an immediate call to the bomb squad. (Also, ninemsn doesn’t cover videogames.)

Samsung throws a wildly overblown launch party for the Galaxy S4
Credit: YouTube.com
Samsung throws a wildly overblown launch party for the Galaxy S4

Smartphone launch events are just now emerging from a strange period of Rococo excess – witness the spectacular awkwardness of a hip indie band trying to get an audience of cranky tech journalists to sing along at a 2012 Verizon event. But the high (?) point was clearly the 2013 launch of the Samsung Galaxy S4, which featured a significant fraction of a Broadway musical, complete with tap-dancing children and a really sexist segment featuring wine-swilling, man-crazy bridesmaids.

Sony (oh, Sony) tries to gin up a “viral” campaign and gets caught
Credit: WikipediaPublic Domain
Sony (oh, Sony) tries to gin up a “viral” campaign and gets caught

Admittedly, picking on individual Sony PR disasters is sort of like highlighting a single grain of sand on a beach, but this mid-2000s campaign – which saw ad agency Zipatoni astroturf the heck out of the Internet with fake blog posts and YouTube videos to promote the PSP – did a great job irritating the people it was supposed to sway.

Vodafone encourages streakers at 2002 rugby match
Vodafone encourages streakers at 2002 rugby match

 I’m not a rugby fan, but I’m guessing that if you listed the things rugby fans want to happen during matches, you would have to look pretty far down said list to find an entry for “obnoxious naked guys interrupting the game by running onto the pitch wearing branded body paint.” Vodafone Australia boss Grahame Maher was forced to apologize and later made a donation to a sports charity.

Windows 98 BSODs on stage at COMDEX
Credit: YouTube.com
Windows 98 BSODs on stage at COMDEX

It was a different climate in the tech world at COMDEX 1998 – no social media to carry the explosion of derision and reaction to the next big version of one of the most-used pieces of software on Earth crashing and burning in a hugely public setting. Maybe that’s why Bill Gates plays it off with such aplomb.