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Microsoft’s New Ad Campaign Ignores Logic

So Mrs. Steinberg comes to me the other day and starts talking about a new ad campaign featuring Bill Gates and Jerry Seinfeld. “What was supposed to be about?” she wondered. The puzzled expression on her face was obvious from across the room.

Now Barbara doesn’t ordinarily talk about such matters. To her, they are strictly fodder for the fast-forward button on our cable company DVR. In this case, though, she was understandably surprised to see Gates pretending to be straight man to a famous comedian.

Understand that she doesn’t follow the tech industry all that much. It’s not really on her radar, despite her husband’s extensive experience at the game. But clearly this particular TV spot struck a chord, but not the kind Microsoft would like.

You see, other than the Windows logo and a brief blurb on the screen, there’s nothing in the first message, shot in a shoe store setting, to really indicate that this is part of Microsoft’s $300 million campaign to redeem the tattered reputation of Windows Vista. For a brief moment, I even thought they were trying to sell me a pair of shoes. Then I recalled the motto of Seinfeld’s popular TV show of the last decade, “a show about nothing.” So that’s it! Microsoft filmed a commercial about nothing.

Certainly, Microsoft has reason to want to give this train wreck some sales traction. After all, the next version of Windows, dubbed “7,” is not expected until 2010 if then. More to the point, the core components will just built upon Vista, which means another bloated operating system that exacts an extremely large amount of system resources.

The situation seems dire, although hundreds of millions of Windows Vista PCs have been sold since the operating system was released in January of 2007. In fact, Microsoft regularly touts the great sales, ignoring the unpleasant news that many businesses choose to stick with Windows XP. To add insult to injury, the enterprise seems, in large part, to be downgrading their new PCs. Imagine if that happened with new Mac owners, who wanted to ditch Leopard and install Tiger?

It appears to me, though, that Apple seems to be going about this the wrong way. You see, humorous ads, successful or otherwise, tend to appeal to consumers and not the enterprise, which is where Microsoft possesses a the largest portion of its industry dominance. Regular people who want to buy a new PC will seldom inquire about the operating system, unless, of course, they want to buy a Mac. Even then, they’ll likely choose it on the basis of its name and looks rather than the underlying software that drives it.

Apple understands this market. The Mac versus PC ads are sharply focused and their intent is very clear. You have two comic actors who portray the Mac as hip, the PC as stodgy. They are also dressed accordingly, to drive the point home even further. These short skits quickly grab your attention, and you never have a moment’s doubt what they’re selling. You don’t need a brief slide of a Mac at the spot’s conclusion to do anything but reinforce your initial impression.

In contrast, that first Microsoft ad is 90 seconds in length, and thus not apt to appear very often on network TV, where 30 seconds is usually more than sufficient. If there’s a message, it’s so subtle that it’ll be lost of most viewers; in other words, it’s an abject failure.

In Microsoft’s defense, maybe this is all part of some sort of series arc, where the totality of a number of these ads will supposedly convey their message about Windows Vista. That requires a sense of continuity, and the expectation that the audience will absorb all of it in the proper sequence.

Perhaps I’m getting this all wrong. Maybe there is a subliminal message that Barbara failed to grasp. If that’s the case, she’s not alone. I don’t get it either, nor do any of the tech pundits whose columns I’ve read in recent days. Well, maybe the Windows fanboys can somehow comprehend this disaster-in-the-making.

What’s probably most unfortunate about this whole silly exercise is that Microsoft very likely believes that somehow bringing back a TV sitcom star from the 1990s will appeal to their target audience. Or maybe they are stuck in the 1990s, believing they can somehow sell today’s products with yesterday’s marketing schemes.

This is not to say that the campaign is doomed to failure. Quite possibly the sheer novelty of having Bill Gates as an on-air spokesperson will attract the curious. But auto accidents attract the curious too, and that doesn’t impact the sale of new products in any way that seems to make sense, although perhaps more people are somehow encouraged to wear seat belts as a result.

Right now, though, it does seem that this new Windows marketing campaign will join the Microsoft Zune as just another failed marketing effort on the part of the world’s largest software company. However, they’re still laughing all the way to the bank, so maybe it doesn’t really matter.