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Friday, April 03, 2009, 03:00 pm PT (06:00 pm ET)

Microsoft's Lauren ad faked say bloggers

Accusations are flying within the blogosphere that Microsoft simply faked its latest ad portraying a real buyer named Lauren shopping for a 17" notebook under $1000, who supposedly couldn't find what she was looking for in the Apple Store.

Bloggers forensically studied the advertisement in slow motion, pointing out that the shots of Lauren entering and leaving the store appear to have been shot all at once; the surrounding people walking past in both shots appear in the same place. This must mean, they conclude, that Lauren never entered the store looking for the $1000 17" notebook, and that the ad simply included a scene at "the Mac store" to offer Apple some additional free advertising.

Of course, it doesn't really matter if Lauren walked into the store and spent any length of time there. The entire ad was contrived by definition. Lauren wasn't given money to find the ideal computer for her needs, she was given a specific budget and told to find a specific hardware feature that Apple does not carry.

Apple only sells one 17" notebook with a high quality, full resolution screen. No PC maker ships anything comparable to the MacBook Pro for under $1000. As the ad points out however, there are plenty of low quality, low resolution 17" screens available from PC makers trying to dangle low prices in front of consumers in the overcrowded, low differentiation market for low end, generic PCs that ship with Windows Vista.

Why would Microsoft's production company waste its time following Lauren around the Apple Store with a camera, when they knew full well that the PC definition they'd cooked up wasn't one of the three simple notebook family members Apple offers? And why would Lauren, a member of the Screen Actor's Guild, waste her time acting out a role that she wasn't even making union wages on?

Lauren may well have simply been looking for a free computer on Craigslist, and not intending to act out a fake role for Microsoft. After all, pretty much everyone in LA is in the SAG, just as everyone in San Francisco is a DJ. Nobody has uncovered Microsoft's ad script telling Lauren to pretend to fruitlessly search among Apple's notebook offerings for a period of time. The company didn't need to do that; it merely wanted to create the suggestion that Lauren failed to find a specific combination of features because she "wasn't cool enough for a Mac," and that Apple's products are too elite and smart and customers should fear them with angry resentment.


Watch Lauren never really enter the Apple Store.


Microsoft's pattern of contrived marketing

It's certainly not anything new to find Microsoft itself putting together contrived attacks of the Mac. During Apple's Switchers campaign, Microsoft ran a print ad entitled "Confessions of a Mac to PC convert," portraying a professionally dressed woman complaining about her Mac stating, "Yes, it's true. I like the Microsoft Windows XP operating system enough to change my whole computing world around. [...] Windows XP gives me more choices and flexibility and better compatibility with the rest of the computing world."

It turned out that Microsoft's "convert" was a stock photography model from Getty Library, and her adspeak was written by a freelance writer Microsoft hired. When the sham convert was exposed by the BBC, Microsoft yanked the ad and killed the copycat campaign, but not before it generated more free publicity for Apple.

Microsoft has since copied Apple's Get a Mac ads, this time replacing comic actor John Hodgman in the role of a Bill Gates-inspired PC character with a real person: a Microsoft employee named Sean who acted out his virtual victimization as a generic PC with the line "I'm a PC and I've been made into a stereotype."

Microsoft tried to promote his identity as a sympathetic character by adding a sean@windows.com email address in the ad. Somewhat ironically, that attempt at viral PC marketing did not take off nearly as well as the typical PC virus. Instead, it was reported that Microsoft had used Macs to create its ads maligning Apple's platform and suggesting that PCs could do anything and everything better.

Microsoft ads promoting Macs

Microsoft returned to its roots with a Songsmith ad that clearly did not use professional actors, this time portraying its new software running on a Mac notebook. Bloggers suggested this was an effort to promote the new program by attaching a contrived controversy of Microsoft using a MacBook in its advertising. That too fell flat, with viewers left in shock by the ad's embarrassing production values and its cringe-inducing music voiced by stilted, soulless shells lacking any personality.


Microsoft's Songsmith promotional video.


The company's inability to effectively market Windows, a product that seemingly shouldn't need marketing as a utility monopoly in the generic PC market, is particularly hard to fathom given Microsoft's vast resources. The company went from hiring bad actors to spending $10 million to bring on Jerry Seinfeld for a couple ads that trail off into cancelation before that campaign ever got around to pitching the product.

Microsoft's $300 million marketing campaign, which the company itself touted to the press, has also been used as fodder in Apple's advertisements, which poke fun at Microsoft for throwing money at ineffective marketing rather than addressing efforts to actually solve the problems Windows Vista users were experiencing.

Microsoft even launched the Mojave Experiment campaign to suggest that real users weren't actually experiencing problems with Vista, and that the software was really just a victim of unfair press coverage. If anything, that effort directed even more attention to the actual problems in Vista.

Microsoft might not be actually sending its advertisement's actors into Apple's retail stores as it films its commercials (and the Apple Store probably wouldn't allow a film crew in anyway), but the real problem for Microsoft's shoppers is that the company has to acknowledge that too many real PC shoppers are headed to the Apple Store, and many are buying a Mac. And while those Macs can run Windows, few actually will. If this keeps up, Microsoft is in danger of losing the remains of the PC market that actually matter, the higher quality sales above $1000 where sustainable profits are made.

If the company isn't careful, it will find itself stuck in price comparisons with Apple that only highlight how much cheaper Linux PCs can be without Windows, and usability comparisons with Linux that highlight how much more attractive Macs are to buyers who don't want to deal with complication.