Microsoft Commercials Are Better Than You Think

I’m a PC

Okay, so I am not exactly a PC. I am typing this on my PowerBook. Unless of course you consider a Mac to be a personal computer. I do, but it has long been the decision by American culture that a PC is anything running the Windows operating system and a Mac is made by Apple and is the perfect computer (PC?).

Anyhow, we’ll stick with popular consensus. Linux also goes on PCs, but since I administer a lot of Linux daily, I’ll talk about it some other time. Sorry fellow penguin-heads.

Unless you’ve been under a rock for the past few years, you’ve probably seen the Get a Mac commercials for Apple, Inc. They feature Justin Long as the Mac and the hilarious John Hodgman as the PC. The ad campaign is a direct attack on Windows marketed under the guise of a Mac’s ease of use.

Suffice it to say the Get a Mac ad campaign had been a success for Apple. The phrase “I’m a Mac and I’m a PC” has worked its way into consumers heads, and it is an instant psychological link to Apple. Not only that, but the ads have also become popular enough to spawn parodies.

Wherefore Art Thou, Microsoft?

The success of Apple’s ads began to make tech pundits wonder where Microsoft had gone. Why were they not firing a return shot? Did they not care that their operating systems, particularly Windows Vista, were being smeared?

Microsoft remedied their silence two weeks ago with the release of a new set of commercials starring the now retired Chairman, Bill Gates, and the comedian Jerry Seinfeld. You can watch them below.

Shoe Circus

New Family

The ad spots left technology media baffled, but the ads also stuck in our heads. There were articles that blasted the commercials, articles that claimed the commercials “bombed”, and a lot of technology writers, podcasters, and reviewers blathering on about Microsoft’s ineptitude at creating a decent marketing campaign.

I Disagree

John Gruber, of Daring Fireball, has written a piece about the commercials. In it, he says,

As entertainment, the spots are good. Both are well-shot, well-cut, well-acted works of cinema. And they’re a radical departure for Microsoft insofar as they completely dropped the meaningless corporate doublespeak that’s been the hallmark of their advertising for the last decade.

But they “worked” only insofar as they said nothing and dropped the pretense of saying something. The spots said nothing and reveled in the nothingness.

I agree with John on the point that the commercials are of a high production quality. I began to think that he might be going all Apple fanboy on us until he continued.

It’s not necessary for effective ads to directly sell anything. An effective ad simply has to make a point. Some of the best ads, rather than establishing facts or planting ideas, instead create a feeling. Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign didn’t tell you to buy sneakers. Apple’s “Think Different” didn’t even mention computers. But those campaigns created feelings about those brands that were so strong that they still feel new.

Good point. Those slogans have stuck so well in the popular psyche that they will forever be linked to those brands, even while the companies try to formulate new catch-phrases.

So where’s the disagreement? It turns out John did turn into an Apple fanboy with a little closing dig.

The reaction to the ads wasn’t bad, it was mixed (and/or baffled). But the spots were undeniably successful in one important regard: they were noticed and discussed. I suspect what sparked the panic is that the Seinfeld ads were too good, too accurate at capturing just what it is that Microsoft, as a company and brand, stands for: nothing.

At least he has always been honest about his Apple bias. I do not agree that the Microsoft brand stands for nothing. The most widely used desktop operating system and office productivity suite does not seem like nothing to me. As a software company goes, they have hugely successful flagship products. Products that have made Microsoft a household name — one that is used interchangeably with PC.

Microsoft does make peripherals, but does not make PCs. Apple even maintains that strong branding of PC = Microsoft in their Get a Mac commercials. Microsoft’s brand may be tarnished, true. “Nothing” is not the word for it, though.

What Happened to Jerry?

It’s arguable whether the Seinfeld spots were yanked prematurely or whether the ad progression was planned this way. Matt Maroon makes a good case that the commercial distribution was planned. Three new ads using the tagline “I’m a PC” have shown up on the airwaves.

You can view the new ads over on TechCrunch (or on YouTube at one, two, and three).

Matt wrote about the Seinfeld ads.

Microsoft’s main objective with these ads is to get back the mindshare that Apple has totally stolen from them in the last 5 years. They can’t do it by just splashing some ads up that say “Vista is good.” They’re targeting consumers (and businessmen, but businessmen with their consumer hat on watching a football game) so to get any attention at all they have to come out of left field, and that’s exactly what they’re doing.

Microsoft got our attention with the Gates/Seinfeld spots. They got us talking about it. They got their name on our lips and in our heads, and there’s been little talk of anything else since the ads were released. Now that we’re watching, Microsoft is starting phase two with the I’m a PC commercials.

I believe that there may be some more Gates/Seinfeld ads yet to come. I also believe that the marketers for this campaign have made one big mistake. It has nothing to do with ads that are confusing. It has nothing to do with using a big name comedian and the founder of Microsoft in miniature sitcoms.

The mistake is using the phrase “I’m a PC” for the second wave of the campaign. Apple has already used this to great effect as part of their Get a Mac campaign, and I cannot help but think of Apple and John Hodgman’s portrayal of PC every time I hear that phrase.

So it is not that Microsoft has a bad campaign on their hands. They simply picked the wrong slogan for it, and that is a good reason to go back to the drawing board.

Ian W. Parker

Ian is a husband, father, Linux expert, and Zumba instructor living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.