The Tech Industry's 10 Most Annoying Fictional Characters
In this slideshow, we'll examine the very worst fictional characters that marketing departments have unleashed on the general public over the years, ranging from smarmy wireless salesmen to dotcom-promoting sock puppets to annoying graphics of paperclips that SIMPLY REFUSE TO GO AWAY not matter what you do.
The Furby: While economically prosperous, the period spanning from 1997 to 2000 was culturally destitute. In case you need a reminder, recall that our lives were seemingly dominated by boy bands, Total Request Live, reality TV shows and... Furbies. For those of you who have psychologically blocked the Furby out of your memory bank, let me explain: it was basically a Mr. Potato Head doll with hair and a beak that spoke in a creepy voice that made it sound like one of the Children of the Corn. The point of the Furby, if there ever was one, was to slowly teach the little cretins English, at which point they'll do dances and tell you jokes. Whee. While Furbies sold more than 14 million units over the span of three years in the late '90s, nowadays most people simply like microwaving the little fuzzballs and then posting videos of their demise on YouTube.
CueCat: And while we're on the subject of dumb late-'90s fads, we would do well to remember the CueCat, a legendarily dopey invention that was designed for people who liked reading magazine advertisements while they surfed the Internet. No, seriously: the CueCat was a small device that you attached to your computer that would scan the barcodes of magazine advertisements and then direct you to the product's website. Unsurprisingly, the CueCat was really just a clever ploy to track consumers' spending habits, as it would track your movements and send information on every single ad you scanned to a marketing database. Although the now-defunct CueCat hacked up its last official furball years ago, hackers have found more subversive uses for it since then.
The "Can You Hear Me Now?" Verizon Guy: In an attempt to demonstrate just how powerful its wireless network is, Verizon has sent a geeky technician out to various boondocks and cow towns to ask fellow technicians back at corporate HQ if they can hear him when he talks. Mercifully, Verizon has decided in more recent ads to have the "Can You Hear Me Now?" Guy remain completely silent, and they are now paying him a hefty salary to merely smirk and raise his eyebrows sarcastically.
The most interesting thing about the "Can You Hear Me Now?" Guy is that he constantly has a group of hundreds of Verizon technicians following him wherever he goes to help ensure call quality. If the Manson family had spent their time building cellular networks instead of being evil, they might have looked something like this.
Clippy: Remember that crazy person you went out on one or two dates with who would keep calling you and calling you even after you made it clear to them that you weren't interested? And remember how you explicitly told them to stop bothering you or you would contact the authorities? And then even after you got a restraining order against them, they still paid private detectives to drive by your house three times a day to see what you were up to? Well, imagine if that person was actually a graphic of a paperclip and was actually 20 times more persistent. Only then could you possibly conceive of the supreme irritation that Microsoft's "Clippy" Office Assistant has caused to Microsoft Word users for years now. Essentially, the stalking graphic popped up whenever you started working on any document in Microsoft Word and asked if you needed help. Even clicking "no" didn't seem to make the little bugger go away for long, and the feature was so widely reviled that a computer science student at Stanford wrote an entire honors thesis explaining why Clippy generated such hate. Eventually, Microsoft got the hint and made Clippy an optional feature that could be activated manually by any masochists and psychopaths who miss his company.
The Dell Dude: Rounding out our trio of bothersome young slackers is the Dell Dude, the oft-arrested loser whose sole joy in life seems to be begging people who actually work for a living to buy Dell computers for him and his friends. Why the Dell Dude's parents should bother investing in an expensive piece of machinery for him is something of a mystery, since the Dude doesn't seem to have much ambition other than playing World of Warcraft and searching for illicit products, ahem, illicit products on Google.
Demonstrating that there is a sense of justice in the cosmos, it was revealed last year that the Dell Dude is now working as a waiter at a restaurant called Tortilla Flats , where he is constantly asked by customers if he's "that dude from the Dell commercial." At this point, I'm sure the Dude wishes that his 15 minutes of fame hadn't lasted quite so long.
Max Headroom: Max Headroom began as a somewhat subversive cyberpunk show that satirized our advertisement-saturated capitalist civilization. That was back in 1985, of course; a mere two years later, Max began shilling soft drinks for Coca-Cola. But even so, at his peak this stuttering computer-generated android was quite a cultural phenomenon, even making the cover of Newsweek in 1987. While Max hasn't been on the air for years, he still retains a cult following and has an active fan club on the Internet.
Since the dawn of time (or at least since the 1980s), tech companies' marketing departments have concocted a slew of catchphrase-wielding characters whose overriding goal is to create affectionate bonds between consumers and their companies' products. But while the average tech company employs advertising whizzes who are significantly smarter than those employed by the local furniture chain, their efforts are still doomed to eventually fail. Why is this, you ask? Well, because the nature of advertising is to repeat things over and over again until people hate hearing them. Thus any long-running advert campaign, no matter how cleverly executed, is bound to stir up resentment if it's played often enough.
Chad from Alltel: Speaking of smarmy and annoying slacker types, meet Chad, the unbearably annoying flack for Alltel Wireless who answers the timeless question, "What would it be like if Tom Green tried to resurrect his career by recasting himself as a soulless corporate shill?" The bulk of Chad's "shtick" involves him going to the corporate headquarters of rival carriers such as T-Mobile and Verizon and attempting to tell their CEOs how totally awesome Alltel's MyCircle offering is. Predictably, none of the corporate big wigs at the other carriers want to hear Chad recite his PR department's talking points to their face, and Chad is escorted off the premises.
While it's somewhat satisfying that Chad continuously fails in his mission to meet with millionaire telecom CEOs, you almost feel like he's getting off too easy by simply being told to leave. It'd be much more enjoyable if, for instance, Sprint ordered their mysterious and menacing trench coat-clad phone salesman to remove Chad from corporate headquarters with "extreme prejudice." You can't have everything in life, I guess.
The Pets.com Puppet: Wrapping up our pet-related relics from the late '90s is the sock puppet from Pets.com, a company that is widely regarded as one of the most spectacular financial flameouts of the dotcom era. Consider that the company raised US$66 million in venture capital in 1999 before completely closing up shop just over one year later. But in between Pets.com's glorious rise and tragic descent, the company unleashed a series of high-priced advertisements featuring a loud-mouthed dog puppet that went into peoples' homes and annoyed their animals. The height of this insanity came when the Pets.com sock puppet got its own float in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, less than a year before the company went completely belly up. Roll over and play dead, boy! Good dog!
The Mac Guy: Admittedly, these ads were cute when they started out, as the two characters served as metaphors for the hip and fresh Mac (pictured right) and the outdated and hopelessly square PC (pictured left). But as the advertising campaign wore on I found myself feeling a Nixonian resentment toward the Mac guy, a self-satisfied Generation X-type who smugly looks on while his friend PC, a hard-working Everyman if there ever was one, tries to claw his way to respectability. While I have no particular insight into how well this ad campaign played to the public, it wouldn't surprise me if Steve Jobs and friends have suffered an angry backlash from America's Silent Majority of PC users.
Innovation Man: The marketing folks over at IBM are generally pretty sharp, as they typically produce effective commercials that convey an impression of professionalism without seeming repetitive or overly cloying. So it's a real mystery why they thought they could sell more products by making ads featuring some loser dressed in a cape. Innovation Man, who storms on the screen to the menacing strains of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, exists for no purpose other than to list off words beginning with the letter "I" that reflect well on IBM's brand, such as "ideation," "incubation" and "invigoration." He somehow forgot to list "irritation," "infuriation" and "indignation." Innovation Man, you fail.