BUSINESS

Bill, Jerry and the ad about nothing

STEVE MAICH September 22 2008
BUSINESS

Bill, Jerry and the ad about nothing

STEVE MAICH September 22 2008

Bill, Jerry and the ad about nothing

STEVE MAICH

There are many in the world of advertising who will tell you that the name of the game is attention. If you can make an ad that gets people talking, you win. That’s all there is to it. By that standard, Microsoft

achieved its first blockbuster success in recent memory this week, when it rolled out the first segment of its new $300-million ad campaign starring Jerry Seinfeld.

The ad instantly became a hot topic of discussion in newspapers and blogs across the continent. The fact that most of the response ranged from bewildered to hostile mattered little. Microsoft spokesman Tom Pilla said the ad was a success because it created “buzz”—the favourite ethereal metric of advertising agencies around the world.

Unfortunately, there are even more people in the world of advertising who can tell you that simply getting noticed isn’t nearly good enough. Attention is cheap. It is fleeting. And it’s a poor substitute for selling. The point is not who manages to get your attention, it’s what they do with it once they’ve got it. Judged by that definition, Microsoft’s latest marketing angle may be its biggest flop yet—and certainly its most expensive.

If you haven’t yet seen the ads, you soon will. Microsoft is sparing no expense to put them in front of as many viewers as possible, starting with last week’s NFL football games. The debut instalment features company cofounder Bill Gates in a shopping mall trying on shoes. Jerry Seinfeld (who happens to be strolling down the hallway) spots him and immediately takes on the role of shoe salesman, firing off witty non sequiturs and random questions with his trademark delivery, dripping in irony. Gates says little and spends most of his time looking perplexed. It’s rambling and slightly manic, with lots of jump cuts and clever nods and winks.

It took Microsoft two years to figure out how to respond to Apple’s wildly successful “Mac vs. PC” commercials, and this is what they came up with. But watching Jerry and

Bill kibitz around the shoe store, you’re left with the unmistakable impression that Microsoft still doesn’t really understand what makes the Apple ads work.

For one thing, casting Gates is a big mistake. He’s stiff, awkward and 99 per cent charisma-free. Even when he’s doing nothing, it seems like he’s trying to do nothing. Apple left Steve Jobs out of its ads because they knew he is not part of the young and stylish generation that they are trying to reach. He’s a nerdy computer genius rapidly

closing in on old age, and so is Gates.

Frankly, Seinfeld isn’t much better. He’s still funny and appealing, but he’s also a 54year-old comic who hasn’t been on TV regularly since his show went off the air in 1998Still, they wanted him so badly, they gave him US$10 million to clown around with Gates. The mind boggles.

But those failings are mere quibbles compared to the more fundamental question: what is this ad really trying to accomplish? On first watch, the Bill and Jerry show is merely confusing. On second watch, you start to notice all the things it doesn’t do... like sell anything, for example. In a minute and 30 seconds, there is exactly one mention of the name Microsoft. The company’s logo appears for less than a second at the very end. No mention of Windows or Vista or MSN or Xbox or Zune or any of the company’s other products or brands. There’s no suggestion that Microsoft makes stuff you might want

to buy, or that their stuff might be better than the competition’s in any way.

The thing that Microsoft seems not to realize is that Apple’s ads are not merely clever, and they don’t just convey the idea that Mac is cool. Every single ad passes on a single, useful piece of information about Macs, in contrast with PCs. They take complicated technological ideas and boil them down into messages that are quick, simple and almost always amusing: Macs are compatible with a host of tech appliances that PCs can’t operate; Macs crash less often then PCs; Macs can run most popular software including Microsoft programs; Macs make photo and video editing simple; Macs are less vulnerable to viruses than PCs. One after another, each spot presents a new reason to choose a Mac over a PC, each resting on a genuinely funny conceit to make the info slide down easily.

In response, Microsoft leaves you with the impression that they have nothing good to say, and so they opted to say nothing at all, in hopes you’d be too focused on Seinfeld munching a churro to notice.

Given the depths of Microsoft’s problems, you’d think they’d have come up with something to counter the avalanche of bad publicity they’ve endured since they rolled out the Vista operating system last year. That one product accounts for more than a quarter of Microsoft’s business, but the Web is full of angry screeds about Vista and its various technical glitches and annoying bugs. They failed in their efforts to buy Yahoo, and seem to be losing the race against Google to dominate Internet software.

Rather than suggest any compelling reason to invest in Vista, or even firing a wellaimed dart at Google, Microsoft decided to treat the world to 90 seconds of two affable, middle-aged white men romping around a suburban mall. “You might think we’re dull and stodgy, and maybe even kind of nasty. But we aren’t! We’re wacky! And Bill Gates has trouble finding comfortable shoes just like you do!” This is what they want you to think of when you think of Microsoft?

Perhaps the rest of the campaign will be better. There’s talk of Chris Rock and Will Ferrell in future instalments. At least they’re on the south side of 50. Clearly, $300 million can buy you a lot of star power. What it can’t do is buy you something compelling to say. Nl

steve.maich@madeans.rogers.com