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5 Ad Campaigns that Failed Quickly (or Spectacularly)

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Microsoft announced it was moving away from its commercials featuring Bill Gates and Jerry Seinfeld just two weeks after unveiling the baffling teaser ads. Although the Seinfeld spots were so short-lived that they might be dubbed a failure—particularly since Seinfeld's deal with Microsoft is rumored to be worth $10 million—Microsoft and ad agency Crispin Porter claimed that the teasers did what they set out to do.

The tale of Gates and Seinfeld traipsing around with the common man wasn't the first ad campaign to struggle to find its audience. If Microsoft execs need a boost, they can console themselves that it could have been worse. They could have run one of these campaigns:

1. Virgin Blue Encourages Travelers to "Chuck a Sickie"

Earlier this year, budget Australian airline Virgin Blue ran a campaign telling potential passengers to "chuck a sickie" to take advantage of the carrier's ultra-thrifty fares. If you're unfamiliar with Australian slang like I was, you might think this campaign was some sort of horrifying effort to encourage the tossing of ill people. Instead, "chuck a sickie" is a more benign term for taking a sick day from work. Virgin Blue head Brett Godfrey didn't see the campaign as harmless fun, though; he didn't appreciate how they supported workplace absenteeism. Godfrey reportedly ordered the ads pulled just 29 minutes after seeing them for the first time.

2. Chevy Lets Users Generate Attack Ads

In 2006 Chevrolet ran a promotion tied to an episode of The Apprentice. The idea was that fans of the Chevy Tahoe could go on Chevy's website and "build their own" Tahoe ads from stock footage of the SUV rumbling through the wilderness. Chevy's website would host the ads, and the best ones would win concert and sporting event tickets for their directors.

However, the site drew more than a few directors seeking a soapbox from which to lambaste SUVs, often with hilarious results. The natural settings in the stock footage coupled with the directors' own trenchant barbs about environmental degradation fostered some truly biting attack ads that ran on Chevrolet's own servers. Here's an example:

3. Benetton Goes to Death Row

deathrow.jpgItalian clothing maker Benetton has never backed down from a controversial ad campaign; at various points the company has run pictures of terminal AIDS patients and a priest kissing a nun. However, many critics thought the designer finally crossed the line in 2000 with the campaign "We, On Death Row," which featured death-row inmates wearing their prison uniforms. The company's catalog contained pictures of 25 death-row prisoners, and their faces also appeared in print ads and on billboards around the world.


The campaign's creator, Benetton creative director Oliviero Toscani claimed that the images were simply used to draw attention to the brutality of the death penalty. Families of the prisoners' victims and victims'-rights groups contended the photos and accompanying narrative glorified the convicts and portrayed the killers as the actual victims. (The ads didn't mention the often-grisly crimes for which the subjects were imprisoned.) Public outrage grew so quickly that Sears terminated its contract to peddle Benetton's clothes, and the campaign could still be considered to be one of advertising's bigger blunders in poor taste.

4. Nike Dunks Its Sneaker Shots

Nike's Hyperdunk basketball shoes got a huge shot in the arm earlier this year when the viral video of Kobe Bryant wearing the sneakers and jumping over an Aston Martin became a web sensation. The print ads Wieden + Kennedy designed to go along with the shoes didn't fare quite so well. The ads presented large photographs of a basketball player being dunked on; the center of each shot was the hapless defender's face, which was obscured by the flying dunker's thighs and waist. Slogans like "That ain't right" appeared on top of the image. To basketball players, it seems apparent that the "that" in question is being on the receiving end of a ferocious dunk. Others, though, thought that the key to the image was one man's groin in another's face, and "That ain't right" was actually a homophobic slam. Following a heated debate on Wieden + Kennedy's blog and a loud public outcry, Nike scrapped the ads.

5. Just For Feet Trips at the Super Bowl

The Super Bowl is the biggest stage for advertising, and as such, it can be the scene for some of the industry's biggest failures. Few ads in history have failed quite so spectacularly as the one footwear chain Just for Feet ran during the 1999 Super Bowl. The spot portrayed a Humvee of white mercenaries chasing an African runner before giving him a cup of drugged water and then forcing a pair of Nikes on his feet while he's passed out. The ad weathered criticism for being colonialist, racist, and pro-drugging; the whole thing was offensive enough that no one seemed to even notice it didn't even really make sense.

Want more proof that the ad was transcendentally bad? Just For Feet sued its ad agency, Saatchi & Saatchi, for $10 million for convincing the company to run the ad despite its misgivings. Although Just for Feet eventually dropped the lawsuit, the company filed for bankruptcy protection later that year amid a serious accounting fraud.

Ethan Trex co-writes Straight Cash, Homey, the Internet's undisputed top source for pictures of people in Ryan Leaf jerseys.

See also...

Shedding Light on Trade Secrets

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Why is the Drinking Age 21?

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7 Companies that Fired Their Spokesmen

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6 Cases of Shamelessly False Advertising

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Advertising Icons: Where are they now, and who were they then?

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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