A PC By Any Other Name is Still a PC

By Paul Chin

Originally published in Intranet Journal's Chin Music (26-Sep-2008)

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Microsoft ads haven't really changed over the years—until recently. They've always had the same ring to them, mirroring Microsoft as company and reflecting the products they put out on the market. They were grandiose, loud, and ready to take on the world. Viewers were bombarded with fast-paced imagery—winding roads, mazes of skyscrapers, open landscapes, busy offices, laughing children—set to the beat of The Rolling Stones' energetic "Start Me Up" or Madonna's frenetic "Ray of Light".

To tell you the truth, Microsoft commercials always reminded me of one of those elaborate Chinese or North Korean military parades that roll down the nation's capital in a show of strength and force. Row upon row of tanks and mobile missile launchers would follow a phalanx of goose stepping soldiers while emotionless onlookers, flanked on either side, are forced to wave their country's flag in "support". It was all about size; the bigger, the better.

Then came Apple's brilliantly simple "I'm a Mac" campaign. These ads also mirror Apple as a company and reflect the products it puts out on the market. They're the antithesis of Microsoft's ads: simple, humorous, creative, and fun. The Mac ads are not flashy in any way. They're no-frills commercials that play on consumers' sense of humor rather than overwhelm their visual and auditory senses with a lot of flash and bombast.

Apple's and Microsoft's campaigns represent their respective companies perfectly. Then someone came up with the bright idea of fighting humor with humor—with Jerry Seinfeld. Unlike Apple, Microsoft just can't do simple. Microsoft has to hit everyone over the head with one of the most recognizable faces in comedy. Everything has to be big.

But the ad fell flat and garnered a lot of negative online reaction, prompting many in the IT community to ask, "Is this the worst technology ad ever made?" It's going to take a lot more than a 90 second commercial to update a brand image that's been cemented in computer users' heads over the span of two decades.

The ad tries to be hip and cool, but comes off embarrassingly ineffective at updating its brand image or undoing the damage caused by Apple's commercials. The Gates-Seinfeld ad tries too hard to make Microsoft appear to be something it's not, like a 70-year-old grandmother in a tight leather miniskirt and bubblegum colored lipstick. That's just wrong.

Microsoft went from shoving its products in your face to not mentioning them at all. But in order for this kind of marketing technique to work, you have to replace the product with something—something humorous, something sexy, something off-the-wall. Calvin Klein ads, for all their pretension, can get away with showing its jeans draped over a chair off in the background for only a fraction of a second in a 30 second commercial because it uses glamor and sex in its ads to target its core audience.

The Gates-Seinfeld ad, however, replaces Microsofts blatant, in-your-face marketing with a whole lot of nothing. Is this the future of Microsoft's ad campaign? Is Microsoft trying to endear the company and its products to users with the same "show about nothing" quirkiness that ingrained Seinfeld's sitcom into popular culture? Nope.

Microsoft takes a sharp turn and comes out with a follow-up commercial sans Seinfeld. Microsoft's Gates-Seinfeld ad transitions to its "I'm a PC" ad, a direct response to Apple's "I'm a Mac" ad, as smoothly as Rachmaninoff transitions to The Ramones. I guess Microsoft doesn't do segues either...

So, has Microsoft's multi-million dollar ad campaign reinvigorated its brand? Has it succeeded in casting the company and its products in a new, hipper light? Well, after watching its commercials a number of times, all I have to say is, "yada, yada, yada..."

Copyright © 2008 Paul Chin. All rights reserved.
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