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Microsoft's $300 million ad campaign tumbles with new PC ads


Microsoft's bizarre campaign to turn $300,000,000 into a marketing message took an even stranger turn Thursday with the airing of the company's latest television commercial: "I'm a PC."

What began as an attempt to associate Microsoft with a smart and comic social relevance turned mean and condescending before being placed on hold indefinitely and replaced by a more defensive series of ads (below) that actually draw attention to Apple by referencing its Get a Mac campaign.

The Mojave Experiment

The first element of Microsoft's effort was the Mojave Experiment, which portrayed the problems of Windows Vista as being a big misunderstanding.

Critics presented that the Mojave ads seemed to portray customers as stupid while delivering a controlled demonstration that tried to deny Vista's widely reported issues rather than answer them with an straightforwardly apologetic solution.

The ads about nothing

Just as Mojave began running into widespread criticism, Microsoft turned attention to a series of ads with Bill Gates and Jerry Seinfield, which promised to "tell the story of Windows."

Instead, the first two ads offered up a story about how Gates buys discount shoes and then the tale of how an unlikely pair of rich house guests might upset teenage girls and slam the door on a star-struck young service person.

Rather than making Gates appear more human, the ads departed from the track and went tumbling off toward the random and often non-sensical comedy style of Seinfeld. The problem of course, is that Seinfeld was an entertainment show 'about nothing' that people watched for passive entertainment; this was an expensively produced advertising message that failed to say anything.

Microsoft promised that the first ads were just a teaser leading up to an expanded series that would get to the point. Yet after seeing the public reaction to the ads, Microsoft's PR group, Waggener Edstrom, put the series on hold, trying to spin the apparent cancelation as a planned progression to phase two, suggesting that the plan all along was to pay Seinfeld $10 million for two surreal teasers.

That story was outed as false when it was revealed that a third ad with Gates and Seinfeld had already been produced, but hasn't yet been aired, and that there is no current plan to publish it.

Crispin Porter + Bogusky

The Seinfeld ads were the work of Crispin Porter + Bogusky, a group with a reputation for doing more daring and original marketing campaigns to get people talking about a product. Interestingly, the group is profiled on Apple Canada's Pro website, related to a project that put four Mac minis hooked up to capture video from mini cameras installed in a Volkswagon Rabbit painted to look like a cab.

For two weeks, the campaign drove the car around New York City "offering perfect strangers free taxi rides in an effort to demonstrate the Rabbit’s ability to negotiate extreme city traffic."

In addition to the Mac minis installed in the car, which the producers described in the article by saying, "we could count on them being dependable and reliable throughout the process," the campaign also set up a series of seven Mac workstations in a hotel room so they could edit and compress the footage and get it up on a website within 24 hours.

It's somewhat ironic that Microsoft's upper management, after hiring Crispin Porter + Bogusky to inject some new life in the the company's brand, hastily decided to yank the ads before they had a chance to go anywhere. Of course, it's also ironic that they chose Seinfeld, who was not only featured in a Think Different ad by Apple back at the height of his popularity (below), but that Seinfeld also prominently displayed Macs in his fictitious apartment throughout the entire run of his TV show.

The circumstances of the Seinfeld ads left the appearance that Gates was trying to buy cool by running along after Apple looking for things to copy, the very thing Microsoft was trying to convey that it wasn't doing.

Your creative is too creative

Additionally, the Seinfeld skits seemed to be doing the opposite of what they intended to do; they actually ending up making Gates look more disconnected, arrogantly infatuated with his own sense of genius, and dismissive of the "regular people" who pay to use his company's products. In dumping them, Microsoft has revealed plans to more directly to take issue with Apple's Get a Mac TV spots.

Gates has bristled at the Get a Mac ads on several occasions before, which comically present John Hodgman as a PC character befuddled by problems, often with Vista. When asked in an interview if he identified himself with the PC character in Apple's ads, Gates stormed out of the studio.

The entire campaign seems to be more focused on Gates' intent to erase his perceived slight in being portrayed as a befuddled nerd rather than in presenting Microsoft as a strong and attractive brand. Microsoft already avoids using its company name on products it wants to market as cool, including the Xbox and Zune.

Those products are nearly irrelevant in comparison to the desktop Windows, Office, and server products that make up the vast majority of the company's revenues and all of its profits. Windows and Office are very high margin products that have enjoyed limited competition.

Get a PC?

Apple's Get a Mac ads are taking a bite into Windows Vista premium sales and more importantly creating a more positive impression of Macs at a time when even the Windows-oriented tech media is complaining about Vista. Allowed to continue, Apple might pull the cornerstone from Microsoft's monopoly machine that sells Windows licenses automatically with every new PC sale.

Microsoft hopes to reverse things by defending the image of the PC character, in part by presenting a generic Hodgman clone complaining about being "stereotyped," and by presenting a series of celebrities and other "everyday PC users" identifying themselves as a PC.

Microsoft's New "I'm a PC ad, aired Thursday night.

The problem of course is that Apple presents the Mac in contrast to PC because it wants to avoid any unnecessary mention of Windows. By copying Apple's line, Microsoft will be spending millions to advertise the PC rather than the Windows brand.

Further, as PC companies such as Dell and Acer continue to seek new ways to use Linux in place of Windows, and as the top PC vendor HP begins its own efforts to create a Windows alternative as reported by BusinessWeek, the idea of advertising "the PC" would do even less for Microsoft.