The Dangers of Drawing Attention to Your Competitors

May 18th, 2009

The latest duel between Apple and Microsoft is playing out in a series of much-discussed ads from both companies that purport to present their sides of the great operating system wars.

On the one hand, you have the pleasantly satirical Mac versus PC spots from Apple, in which the PC is depicted as a pleasant but always frazzled person, while the Mac is simply cool. Microsoft’s answer is to have actors masquerade as regular people who are given money and the task of buying the best note-book. Hint: It’s always a PC. So what did you expect?

Now you just knew that Apple fans would quickly pick out the blatant flaws in Microsoft’s advertising, which only goes to show that the company didn’t vet those ads properly. Surely they could have staged it so their performers selected more compelling Windows-based note-books, as there are some models that compete far better with the Mac alternative. It’s almost as if they were designed to fail.

However, the larger issue is just how much a company wants to focus attention on its main competitor. With Apple, the 800-pound Microsoft gorilla is always in the room, so they may as well acknowledge it. Their technique, of course, is to use humor to focus on the well-known shortcomings in Windows. Sure there’s exaggeration on both sides, but the core message is actually quite accurate and that clearly doesn’t sit well with Microsoft’s leadership.

More to the point, CEO Steve Ballmer is the sort of “shoot from the hip” person who can’t hide his feelings about pointed criticism. You can almost hear him screaming into the phone at his ad agency demanding they do something, anything, to combat Apple’s campaign.

A writer from Fortune is suggesting that Bill Gates, faced with a similar set of circumstances, would have simply taken the high road and ignored Apple. Sometimes the best way to defeat the competitor is to accentuate the positives, such as they are, and pretend that there are no other companies out there with comparable products.

Indeed, those cute spots featuring a child doing cool things on a PC were just perfect. It made Windows seem warm, fuzzy and not as intimidating as some might have you believe. No doubt such basic tasks are probably near as easy to perform on a PC as on a Mac, and an expansion of that campaign might have done wonders to improve the tarnished image of Windows.

But, no, Microsoft doesn’t know when to stop, and running an ad campaign in which the Mac is mentioned constantly only elevates Apple’s status in this supposed battle to the death. Worse, doing a poor comparison is worse than none at all. Microsoft is actually not even promoting Windows in these ads, but someone else’s hardware. Whether it’s HP, Sony or another company doesn’t matter. Nothing in those ads conveys the message of whether Windows can actually get the job done, only that the hardware on which it runs may or may not be cheaper than a Mac. Even that depends on how you interpret the purchase choices that were made.

Of course, the best method of evaluating an ad campaign is what people in the industry call Return On Investment, or ROI for short. If the money spent is delivering decent sales and profits, you continue the campaign, even if lots of people hate your approach. However, if sales don’t change, or are impacted negatively, then you try a different approach and see if it fares better.

I rather expect that Apple’s Mac versus PC ads are bona fide hits. That’s why the campaign has continued for the past several years. At the same time, you have to think of Microsoft as a company scrambling to find a coherent message, because they are taking the music industry approach of throwing out tons of product in the hope that something will catch on.

Sure, Microsoft’s method may gain the attention of Mac users, who delight in finding holes in the message. That indeed may draw critical, but not friendly, attention to the campaign. But the average consumer may not care one way or the other. The worst that can happen is that people will simply fast forward through the ads on their DVRs. With more and more people time-shifting TV fare for later viewing, that can be death to even the most clever marketing plan. And nothing, to me at least, speaks clever in most of Microsoft’s efforts so far. Except for the ones featuring children, of course.

On the long term, it’s quite possible Microsoft will simply keep the ads going non-stop, one after another, in the hope that the message they are trying to convey, the existence of an Apple Tax, sinks in. But public perceptions have long ago concluded the very same thing, that a Mac is more expensive than a PC. But people who buy Macs anyway don’t care about the price difference. They seek a better product.

As a matter of fact, I won’t even repeat my well-worn arguments about the Apple Tax message. It doesn’t matter anymore. Microsoft hasn’t realized that yet, and it may indeed be too late for them before they do. Way too late!

| Print This Article Print This Article

13 Responses to “The Dangers of Drawing Attention to Your Competitors”

  1. coolfactor says:

    Yes, the spots so far are shameful. If they are serious about their message, they would pick comparable products. The last “shopper” sought a 13-inch screen, battery-efficient laptop, but they showed a MacBook Pro, not the MacBook, as an Apple comparison and then of course the price was “twice as much”.

  2. Adam says:

    I have but one conclusion about the Microsoft ads:

    Look how well K-Mart did in the long run focusing only on price and the Blue-Light special!

  3. Yacko says:

    Those were ads? I thought they were minute episodes of a new short attention span comedy series!

  4. Yacko wrote:

    Those were ads? I thought they were minute episodes of a new short attention span comedy series!

    You give Microsoft too much credit. 🙂


  5. Karl says:

    I think the Microsoft ads target their core demo very well. The ads also hit Apple were they are the most vulnerable, on the very low end of the computer spectrum. Apple doesn’t play at that end of the pool.

    Apple doesn’t have a “cheap” computer. If your budget is tight usually you can still find a PC that has most of everything you want in your price range because so many companies make so many different configurations. So you can give up the iSight camera to save some bucks if you don’t need it.

    I’m not saying there is an Apple Tax. Apple just limits there offerings. They aren’t targeting the same demographic group so they don’t need too.

    If I was head of the advertising department. I would really switch things up and push running Windows on Mac hardware. This would give Apple fits to some degree with out looking like the “bad guy.”

  6. John Dingler says:

    Hi Gene,
    It would seem to a thinking person that Microsoft is promoting inexpensive — some would say cheap — PCs and, in an effort to get a shopper to buy a PC, Microsoft has to give him/her enough money to cover the cost.

    This message tells me that PCs are cheap, that you get what you pay for, and that MS’s Windows products are not compelling enough to the shopper to make the shopper use his/her own money. In my judgment, MS is locked into using a bad business model to sell a product.

    That MS has to mention a small competitor in order to promote its own product is a risky tactic if the message is not clearly focused. It’s not. It is also muddled. This it gives Apple some unintended prominence and publicity that is mixed. MS is inadvertently positioning itself into a victim and reacting from a state of unwarranted fear leading to this mistaken campaign. It seems strange that a company as big and powerful as MS can’t find a PR firm that would outdo Chiat/Day, unless no one can because it has so little of substance to work with.

  7. MichaelT says:

    And what will MS do if the rumors are true about Apple offering lower-priced devices in the near future?

  8. Peter says:

    Actually, I’ll take a contrarian viewpoint.

    First, there’s nothing wrong with mentioning your competitor if you are beating them–which Microsoft is claiming. The subtext to Microsoft’s ads is that Windows is just as good as a Mac, so why pay more?

    Second, Microsoft’s ads are really good at focusing on what consumers are looking for. The 17″ Laptop is a good example: I want a laptop with a big screen. Apple’s laptop with a big screen costs $3000. The HP laptop with the big screen costs $1000. Now, sure, the Apple laptop’s resolution is 1920 x 1200 and the HP’s is 1440 x whatever. Yeah, the Apple laptop is superfast with the latest memory technology while the HP is basically 2 year-old technology. Yes, the Apple laptop is a portable professional video editing powerhouse while the HP is a consumer model with a big screen. But that’s what these people are looking for and, for their purposes, the Apple laptop is overpriced. And while, yes, Mac OS X beats the pants off of Vista and, yes, Apple’s support is top-notch, is it worth paying 3x as much for a laptop with a 17″ screen?

    Finally, from a hardware standpoint, there are holes in Apple’s product line. There’s no 15″ consumer laptop. There’s no inexpensive tower/minitower configuration. And Microsoft’s message is, with Windows you can get the hardware that you want. With Apple, you have to either pay more or settle for less. Notice that all of these people are walking out with exactly what they asked for. How many times have you seen Mac users agonizing over whether to get a MacBook or a MacBook Pro?

  9. RAY says:


  10. Which page are you referring to? Our posts print fine in Safari 4 with and without our new Print Friendly feature.


  11. David says:

    Well said Peter. Although Apple pretends it’s not true, each customer has his/her own set of requirements for a computer. For some the size of the display really is more important than battery life, processing power, etc. I understand that perspective. Most of the time the slowest part of any computer is the user. If you give the user a larger display, they are likely to be more productive. Of course if it’s too big and heavy to carry then productivity is going to drop, but if the user really wants a big screen then they’re already willing to accept the added bulk.

    Apple understands all this, but they don’t want to make 20 different models of Mac so they have decided, on behalf of their customers, what is most important. Thus we see a notebook lineup that emphasizes looks, weight, battery life, and highly recyclable parts. Within those constraints Apple tries to use the latest processors.

    Very few people know how to calculate the total cost of ownership for their computers. If they did, Apple would sell a lot more computers because a trouble free machine is worth hundreds if not thousands of dollars in added productivity and lowered stress. In the notebook world Apple stands above the rest in annual cost.

    There is another significant element of total cost of ownership: frequency of replacement.

    Apple is bashing netbooks on this front saying that they offer a poor user experience and have poor build quality. In other words, either it’s going to break down or you’re simply going to get frustrated with it and have to buy another one.

    They’re hoping that people will see that buying a MacBook that will last 4 years is better value than buying a netbook that may not even last 2 years.

    Unfortunately for Apple, that comparison falls flat on its face when you move to the desktop. Their focus on energy consumption means that consumer Macs (mini, iMac) are significantly slower in raw hardware terms than comparably priced desktop PCs. Putting OS X on that PC makes it clear just how many years of useful life are lost when you buy an iMac.

    There are two year old, $1200 hackintosh machines that are arguably faster than the current iMac in every respect and, once Snow Leopard is hacked, will leave them all in the proverbial dust.

    So no matter how long you make your iMac last, someone out there spent less than you did on a hackintosh that’s going to last at least two years longer.

    And that, my friends, is precisely why there is no consumer tower in Apple’s lineup. Making one would increase design, production and support costs while driving down sales revenue.

  12. robinson says:

    Isn’t there a way for Apple to produce a low-cost entry level laptop or desktop that gets people on board the Macintosh train?

    A loss leader as it were. Those people will eventually upgrade to faster, better, snazzier Apple machines down the road, once they’ve gotten hooked by the better experience of OS X, iLife apps, lack of viruses, sense of community, etc.

    You could get lots of students that way, working class folks and others with strapped budgets, lots of young cost-conscious professionals, etc. Eventually as their incomes and the economy improved, they’d be more than willing to spring for the more expensive Apple products.

    And having just one of those entry points wouldn’t tarnish the allure, primo, classy Mac cachet–but would bring more of the masses into it.

  13. “Steve Ballmer is the sort of “shoot from the hip” person”

    I call him a “shoot from the lip” person.

Leave Your Comment