No, Microsoft's Ads Aren't Genius

Friday, 2008-09-12; 01:06:12

Microsoft’s new ad campaign with Jerry Seinfeld isn’t genius. It’s just stupid. What a shocking supposition, right? Well, to my surprise, apparently not all people think so. Daniel Jalkut posted an article today positing that the Jerry Seinfeld ads are “as close to genius as Microsoft could ever dream of coming”.

I think refuting this hypothesis is best done point-by-point.

Most critics of these ads point out, quite rightly, that the message doesn’t ask viewers to buy anything. If an ad doesn’t ask you to buy something, surely it’s a failure. […] If you want to criticize these ads, come up with something deeper than their failure to clearly condense into 30 seconds what purchasing action a consumer should take!

There are two types of ads, one which directly pitches a product to the viewer, and one which pitches a brand to the viewer. Microsoft’s ads are a form of the latter.

Brand ads, though, actually have two types as well; the competitor brand ad, and the monopoly brand ad. With a competitor brand ad, the company is positioning itself so that when consumers think of a specific type of product (e.g.: routers), the consumer will automatically associate that type of product with a specific brand (e.g.: Cisco). Cisco’s infuriating “Welcome to the Human Network” ads are a perfect example of this. Cisco’s products (chiefly routers, which basically pass packets back and forth) don’t really have anything to do with creating a “human network”; rather, they simply create a “network”. But the ads are effective because they’re touchy-feely, and make viewers feel good.

With a monopoly brand ad, however, the company is trying to enhance the company’s public image, with the goal of making consumers feel better about buying that monopoly’s inelastic product. The key word here is “inelastic”. We’re talking about products that consumers would buy anyway, even if they have a negative opinion about the company who makes that product. The consumers already understand the utility of the product, and they’re already going to buy it; they’re just not comfortable with the company from which they’re buying the product. A good example of these kinds of ads are the infuriating ExxonMobil ads, which insinuate that the company is doing a lot for the environment, when they’ve actually been fighting tooth-and-nail for decades to lower the payoff due to the catastrophic Exxon Valdez oil spill, and were sadly successful.

Microsoft’s ads fit into neither of these two categories. Microsoft isn’t really a competitor in the computer market; it’s effectively a monopoly. Sure, there’s Apple and Linux, but they hardly pose a threat to Microsoft in the consumer market. Pitching the brand to viewers doesn’t really help because people almost automatically buy Windows PCs when they buy a computer. (This is slowly changing what with Apple’s extremely excellent product lineup.)

But Microsoft’s products aren’t inelastic. So a monopoly brand ad isn’t going to work for them either. The problem that Microsoft has is that their products just don’t work. Their products don’t have value to the average consumer. Consumers aren’t automatically going to go out and buy Vista like they would gasoline from ExxonMobil. Consumers use Vista simply because it’s been preloaded on their new computer. They aren’t upgrading to Vista because Microsoft hasn’t convinced them of the benefits of Vista over XP. Microsoft’s Mojave Experiment ads are a testament to this.

Microsoft’s fundamental problem is not that they have a public image problem. They have a product problem. Consumers don’t value their products. Microsoft doesn’t make products that are head and shoulders above other products. They’re bland, they’re problematic, and Microsoft can’t even convince consumers that they’ve bested their old product!

It’s a product problem. The bad public image is fundamentally due to the product problem. Microsoft can’t fix this with brand ads. They can’t even fix this with product ads. They need to fix their product first.

If you’re Microsoft, and you’ve grown tired of these assessments, you wouldn’t have to be a rocket scientist to realize that owning 90% of the market and having a bajillion dollars … is a pretty good place to start from, in turning around your public image.

If you’re a Microsoft exec, and you’re smart, you’d be investing this money in improving your products, not investing millions in a misguided ad campaign that is not going to do anything to change the perception that your products are flawed.

Again, Microsoft needs to fix its products before it can fix its public image.

These people are expecting something cliche from Microsoft, and instead the company has handed them a revolution. While Seinfeld’s collaboration with Microsoft has been widely heralded as a long-overdue reaction to Apple’s Mac/PC ads, Microsoft has instead taken a completely different path. And people can’t stand it.

People expect something “cliché” from Microsoft, because Microsoft’s products are fundamentally flawed. Instead of addressing the core problem, Microsoft comes out with yet another set of ads. Consumers are tired of it! They want a better product, not more ads!

The only reason why it’s becoming a headache for Microsoft now is that Apple has finally gotten to the point where it’s convinced consumers that their products offer better value. This wasn’t the case for the first part of this decade.

I propose that Microsoft’s ads, with their mysterious yet evocative plot, are the most creative and purposeful ads ever to come out of the company. While devoted Apple fans might relish in declaring them an utter failure, I make the opposite assessment. These ads are the last best hope Microsoft has at erecting a dam in the face of a tidal shift towards Apple.

Seriously? You think the best thing that Microsoft can do to stop the “tidal shift” towards Apple is to come out with a weird ad campaign, rather then fix their products!? If that’s the case, then I’d question whether Jalkut is fit to run a large company.

We’ve seen this problem before with another company: Apple. In the late 1990s, Apple’s public image was in the crapper because of… you guessed it… crappy products. But Apple was in a different situation than Microsoft, because it wasn’t in a de facto monopoly position. And Apple came out with a competitor brand ad, the Think Different campaign. Apple wanted people to automatically associate computers with Apple.

But I’ve seen no evidence to support the claim that the Think Different campaign turned Apple’s fortunes around. In fact, it’s practically undisputed that it was an Apple product, the original iMac, which made consumers realize that maybe Apple’s products had value. The iMac was cheap, it had a fast modem (so that one could browse the internet at what was then a fast pace), and it allowed one to get on the internet in three easy steps (there’s no step 3).

It wasn’t the ad campaign that turned Apple around. It was the products. After the iMac, Apple kept on hitting the target with valuable products: colored iMacs, iBooks, upgraded iMacs, upgraded iBooks, PowerBook G4, etc. The only two products in the last decade that could possible be termed “failures” for Apple are the G4 cube and the iPod Hi-Fi. Every other product has pretty much been a hit with consumers.

With these first ads from the Seinfeld era of Microsoft marketing, we see a company that is no longer simply spittling up blood, but instead spraying it in the face of its opponent. If Apple has been wondering when the competition will strike back, the answer is now. With a vengeance, albeit a somewhat mysterious one.

Oh come on. “With a vengeance, albeit a somewhat mysterious one”? What the fuck does that even mean? This reminds me of the time I read an article in the San Francisco Chronicle that said, “[t]he brink of what remained unclear.”

You can’t strike back “with a vengeance” but be mysterious at the same time! This is just an attempt to justify the argument with phrases that sound good, but when you think about it, are really just plain stupid.

So if you think the ads suck, don’t worry, you’re not the target audience. Laugh away!

Oh, I get it. If we raise any objections to Jalkut’s argument, then we obviously aren’t the “target audience” and so our opinions don’t matter. That’s a brilliant way of arguing your point; anybody who disagrees with you is painted as insignificant!

This smacks of the same arguments that many used to defend MacHeist. “Of course your opinion doesn’t matter because you aren’t one of the developers participating in the promotion!” If you actually think about this argument, it’s basically saying the same thing that Jalkut is saying: anybody who disagrees with you shouldn’t be allowed into the argument.

Jalkut’s article sounds basically like someone who wants to take an opinion contrary to everybody else just for the fun of it. But when you analyze his argument, it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Usually, when an advertisement makes you scratch your head and go, “Huh?”, it’s not evidence of a brilliant ad campaign, it’s evidence of a stupid one.

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