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September 23, 2008

Microsoft rocks an ad about nothing

Categories Microsoft 

When I first read about the new Microsoft ads featuring Bill Gates and Jerry Seinfeld, I was really skeptical.  The match-up seemed strange; Bill Gates has pretty much stepped down from Microsoft and a Mac was always perched atop Jerry's desk in "Seinfeld."  But after watching the first ad several times, I think it’s incredibly successful (and hilarious).  Unfortunately, I seem to have the minority opinion (more on that later).

Objectives of the ad

The purpose of the ad, and perhaps the entire $300 million campaign, is simply to improve people's opinions about Microsoft.  All of Vista's bad press has hurt Microsoft, and it needs do something.  Obviously improving Vista is important, but all the improvements they make could be insufficient if people still have an overwhelmingly negative impression of Microsoft.  If people begin to like Microsoft more they'll not only be more receptive to future products (and product improvements) but they'll be more forgiving if things aren't perfect at first.  And that’s a problem only advertising and PR can tackle.

Why Bill Gates?

Casting Bill Gates in the ads is a brilliant strategy.  Bill Gates is far more likeable than people give him credit for.  Even people who don’t like Microsoft, can’t help but admire Bill Gates.  After all, he became the richest person in the US by starting and running his own company.  It’s hard not to be impressed with success like that.  He’s also regarded as extremely (intimidatingly) smart, and his heroic philanthropic efforts don’t hurt his image either.  Still Gates has a casual appearance that’s quite disarming and endearing.  He also keeps a very low profile and rarely appears publicly.  In the end, Gates is the real celebrity of the ad; we’ve all seen Jerry Seinfeld on TV hundreds of times, but most of us have only seen Bill Gates on TV a couple of times (if that).  

But Gates doesn’t just appear in the ad for his celebrity and likability, his appearance has symbolic value too.  When a company falters, people want accountability and reassurance from a figure they know.  Invoking the CEO in some public fashion is the best way to signal to people “We recognize we have a problem, and we’ve got our best guy on it.”  That's exactly what Crispin Porter + Bogusky has done by casting Gates in the ads.  Gates’s appearance in the ads is a symbolic apology for Vista, or at the very least a public acknowledgement of a PR problem.  After all, if these ads weren’t really important there’s no way Bill Gates would be wiggling his low-profile, semi-retired butt for Microsoft.

Target audience

An obvious approach for the ad campaign would be to target big enterprise customers that represent the majority of Microsoft’s business and try to sell them on Vista using logic and persuasion.  The problem is that so many people have formed such negative impressions of Microsoft and Vista that logic and persuasion might not work.  Also, there’s the even bigger problem that if you are satisfied with Windows XP, Vista probably isn’t worth the expense or trouble of upgrading.  Microsoft needs a different approach to be effective.

The key insight Crispin Porter + Bogusky brought to the ads is that they must change people’s impression of Microsoft and even how they feel about Microsoft.   To do this, the ads need to appeal to people on an emotional level.  Humor is the perfect way to do that.  By making the ad really funny and quirky, it doesn’t appeal to our intellect, it appeals to our emotions. This makes the ads much memorable and effective.  The ad is also able to work on a very wide audience, from everyday home users to people who will make big purchasing decision in their enterprises about Microsoft products.  Essentially the ad does double duty.

By comparison, the old Microsoft “your potential, our passion” ads attempted to be inspiring but were very generic and ambiguous.  The repetition of the phrase “we see…” over and over again gave viewers creepy sensation that Microsoft is watching and impossible to escape.  Not the impression you want to give when your software runs on something like 90% of computers in the world.

Why the ad works

Ultimately the ad works because you like Bill Gates, or you now like Bill Gates even more and (hopefully) some of those warm fuzzy feelings will bleed over into your impression of Microsoft.  But the ad also works, because it’s extremely funny.  It makes you smile and that can’t help but affect your opinion of Microsoft (even just a little).  The comedic timing in the ad is great, and Seinfeld and Gates work surprisingly well together.  The ad seems to acknowledge the weird mash-up of the two (worlds collide!) and push it to extreme absurdity (where does a guy like Bill Gates by his shoes anyway?).

But there’s more than the symbolism and humor.  There’s content there, not much but just a little.  The real content of the ad is when Seinfeld asks Gates:

“I’d imagine that over the years, you’ve mind melded your magnum Jupiter brain to those other Saturn ring brains at Microsoft?”

And Gates, very proudly and confidently answers “I have.”

That tiny interaction and its delivery are meant to instill confidence in Microsoft, and it works.

The Criticism

The response toward the Gates and Seinfeld ads has been mostly negative.  Admittedly, I haven’t read all the criticism out there about the ad, but most of what I’ve read is along the lines of “I don’t get it” or “These ads are weird.”  Well here’s the thing, there’s not a lot to get.  Just like there’s nothing to “get” about frogs that have learned how to croak “Bud-weis-er” or claymation bunnies invading Manhattan and becoming a tidal wave.  I think the real problem here is that people aren't used to seeing Microsoft do something as original and creative as these ads and are a little confused by the whole thing.  Which is really a shame, because that's exactly what the ad is meant to combat.  As of late, the ads featuring Gates and Seinfeld have been put on hold for some ads that take on Apple's Mac and PC ads.  More on that later.

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