Humanize Microsoft? That’s impossible!

by Mathew on September 12, 2008 · 21 comments

Anyone who isn’t talking about how dumb Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin was in her interview (and that’s a lot of people) seems to be talking about the new Microsoft ad with Bill Gates and Jerry Seinfeld, and how they don’t get it. Mike Arrington doesn’t get it, and neither does my friend Mark Evans, to name just two. I think John Furrier comes close to the truth when he says that Mike not getting it is a sign that it’s working, because it’s not aimed at geeks. And part of what makes it hard to get is that it isn’t even about Windows, or Microsoft for that matter. Like Seinfeld, it’s not really about anything.

I made a marketing expert friend of mine mad recently when she said that the marketing professionals she knew didn’t like the original ad — and thought Microsoft was getting taken to the cleaners by its ad agency, Crispin Porter + Bogusky — because it was a dumb idea, or at least not a smart one. I tried to make the point that I don’t think Microsoft cares whether she and her marketing colleagues think the campaign is “smart” or not. They aren’t the target market any more than Mike Arrington is. I think whoever put these together is really just trying to humanize a giant company, and that’s a tough assignment.

Seinfeld may not be all that funny in these ads, but then it’s tough to do his shtick without some energetic foils like George Costanza or Kosmo Kramer — and let’s face it, Bill Gates is no George Costanza. He has zero energy onscreen (hey, if he needs energy, he pays people to generate energy for him). But still, the idea as I see it is just to make fun of the fact that Bill is a billionaire and he’s kind of clueless and out of touch (and to get some buzz as well, do doubt), and Seinfeld is a great choice for that kind of ad. He’s filthy rich, and yet many people still see him as the sneaker-wearing funny guy and they love him.

When it comes right down to it, I like these ads better than Apple’s celebrated ads with the Mac guy and the PC guy. They may radiate “cool” and “hip,” but the fact is that the Mac guy comes off as a snotty, arrogant little twerp. Most people I know — even those who adore Apple products — seem to sympathize with the PC character, who by contrast is genuinely likable. To me, the Apple ads are a total failure, and yet I don’t think anyone really cares, because Apple’s products are so great that they effectively market themselves.

  • http://carrieanddanielle.com Daniel Gibbons

    I think they are brilliantly deadpan, and like you say much more appealing than the Mac / PC ads (there's an idea not just being done to death but done until the worms have eaten the corpse…).

    And anyway, what is it they say about marketing? A tax you pay for being unexceptional.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    That's a good line, Daniel — I hadn't heard that one before.

  • http://www.benlucier.ca Ben Lucier

    I love the Apple ads Matt, but I do think they're starting to lose their appeal. Everybody knows Vista was a mess to start with and like anything, a single topic can't be funny forever. If that were true, why would comedians bother writing new material?

    As for Bill and Seinfeld, I might also fit in their target demographic, but it didn't strike me as a failure. I admit that Bill Gates is my personal hero, so I think I might be biased. Any chance to see him in action, whether it's a commercial, or an appearance at a local university, I can't get enough.

    I don't know much of the campaign (I've seen both commercials), but if I had to guess, I would say the agency is hitting the mark their aiming for. The commercial doesn't offend, it's engaging and it makes you feel a little bit uneasy, with a slight twist of humour.

    As usual, in today's day and age, people judge things on immediate payback. This commercial fails in its goal to relate to the masses and let people know that Microsoft is learning from its past. A commercial that does that could not be produced.

    Microsoft will need to work hard at building products that people love and can rely on in addition to a lot more commercials like this to support its efforts.

  • http://www.benlucier.ca Ben Lucier

    Take II:

    I love the Apple ads Matt, but I do think they're starting to lose their appeal. Everybody knows Vista was a mess to start with and like anything, a single topic can't be funny forever. If that were true, why would comedians bother writing new material?

    As for Bill and Seinfeld, I may not fit in their target demographic, but it didn't strike me as a failure. I admit that Bill Gates is my personal hero, so I think I might be biased. Any chance to see him in action, whether it's a commercial, or an appearance at a local university, I can't get enough.

    I don't know much of the campaign (I've seen both commercials), but if I had to guess, I would say the agency is hitting the mark their aiming for. The commercial doesn't offend, it's engaging and it makes you feel a little bit uneasy, with a slight twist of humour.

    As usual, in today's day and age, people judge things on immediate payback. This commercial fails in its goal to relate to the masses and let people know that Microsoft is learning from its past. A commercial that does that could not be produced.

    Microsoft will need to work hard at building products that people love and can rely on in addition to a lot more commercials like this to support its efforts.

  • mmasnick

    Heh. I think it's a great ad, but what do I know? It humanizes Microsoft and it opens them up to doing a lot more ads in the future that do promote Microsoft. I'm somewhat confused by all the complaints about it.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    I think it's largely a knee-jerk “Microsoft can't do anything right” kind of response. Plus, there's no question that Bill Gates and comedy aren't words that normally go together :-) Which is why I think it's perfect to use Seinfeld.

  • http://leighhimel.blogspot.com leigh

    Your marketing friend is clearly brilliant. And i'm guessing that she was giving a professional opinion about the ad not a personal one. The truth is, without knowing who their target is, it's all a bit of a shot in the dark. However, having worked on brands that lose relevance over time, my guess is that their concern is less anyone over 40 and more about the growing brand power of companies like Apple and Google in the under 30 market. For that reason, I have to wonder how Seinfeld as a choice and how these ads are going to further their cause.

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  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Yeah, she's wicked smaht, as they say in Boston :-) and I think you
    might be right about the Seinfeld choice — that was one of the things
    that occurred to me as well, that he's a little old for the target
    market. But then, I don't really know what the target market is.

  • Robert

    This is one of the smartest commentaries on the new ad campaign I have read yet. I really like where this is going. It is helping me anticipate more what microsoft is doing with all their currently existing and future products.

  • http://www.agoracom.com AGORACOM

    Mathew, can't agree with you more. I friggin' love these ads. Brilliant. “I have so many cars I get stuck in my own traffic” Priceless and a great connect with Joe public.

    From a biz point of view, I think the “what is next” angle is brilliant. They spend 95% of the time entertaining and 5% of the time teasing about what is next. Brilliant.

    Finally, I love the fact that Arrington and the SV Geeks are spinning….as if they would have ever gone out and bought MSFT products in their lifetime.

  • http://www.gregorylent.tumblr.com gregorylent

    the acting, editing , pacing, and story/through line seem ragged to me. at this level it must have been part of the spec. i don't enjoy watching them. they seem to be a dumb-down mocking of banality….

    good luck.

  • http://www.inqk.net Michael Camilleri

    Two things:

    First, I think you miss the point of the Apple commercials. Unlike what the Microsoft ones are trying to do (or perhaps trying to do since no one knows for sure) the Apple commercials have a single objective: make people think Macs are easy to use. Whether you like Justin Long after the commercial or whether you'd rather have a beer with John Hodgman is beside the point. None of the ads leave you in any doubt that using Windows is a pain and that things would be so much easier if you just owned a Mac. These ads are particularly effective on people who do not own a Mac and assume that it really will be as good as they make it out to be.

    Second, the trouble with the Microsoft ads is that they're not addressing Microsoft's actual problem. This problem is not that their company is perceived as inhuman, it's that their products are perceived as bad (or at the very least poorly designed). This campaign may well be successful in humanising Microsoft (certainly they're helping Bill Gates seem cool) but if Microsoft thinks people aren't flocking to Vista just to stick it to the man they're sorely in need of a reality check. Vista's problems are the hardware requirements, compatibility issues (or perceived issues), and it's 'helpfulness'.

    To be fair to Redmond, I do think part of the reason people aren't flocking to Vista is that with XP they actually created a pretty good operating system that does what most people want it to do and which everyone's quite used to after 8 years or so. But the ads don't address this problem either.

    Finally (OK, so maybe there were three things), I think it's quite legitimate for people who may not be the target audience to look at what a marketing campaign should be aiming at achieving and say whether it is falling short of that mark or not. It doesn't matter whether I get the ads or not, it's whether the ads address the problem or not and in the case of this campaign they don't.

  • http://libertango.livejournal.com/ Hal O'Brien

    “(W)hat is it they say about marketing? A tax you pay for being unexceptional.”

    No wonder Apple is the best marketing company in the world.

    Pity for their shareholders they have only one client, though.

  • delmar

    i think you miss the point of the apple ads. despite the cult affectation – especially the obsession among the web 2.0/techmeme echo chamber – fact is that apple's share of market remains puny. to the degree that the ads trumpet the mac's technical prowess – and convinces more “switchers” – then it's all to apples advantage. i'm reserving judgment on the effectiveness of the microsoft/seinfield bits. most of the commentary posing as analysis on the marketing campaign are simply premature, imho

  • http://www.inqk.net Michael Camilleri
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  • http://www.globalracingschools.com Racing Schools

    If they wanna humanize themselves, they should be showing the old ad when Steve Balmer was the 1 One-Man Sale Team.

  • http://alaminos.net/ 100Hundreds

    they made impossible

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