Microsoft's Surface problem: Blame the advertising?

With the company's $900 million write-down on its Surface RT, could it be that part of the issue is that the Surface brand hasn't caught the public's imagination, despite the dancing ads? Or, perhaps, because of them?

So jolly. Microsoft/YouTube Screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

The numbers aren't singing a song that Wall Streeters like to hum , so Thursday will have seen no Redmond Rumba.

There will be no pas de deux, especially not an iPad de deux. If Microsoft will be dancing, it'll be dancing alone.

Launching a new product is hard. Launching a new type of product -- and, for all the alleged failure with the Surface RT , the Surface idea was unquestionably thinking different -- is harder than trying to get politicians to think about anyone but themselves.

Which leads me to 14-year-old girls dancing on benches.

They (and some very pretty dancing boys) were the first spokespeople -- or, rather, jigpeople -- for the Surface.

At the time, I wanted to be my generally charitable self. So I called the ad surface deep.

This was jiggery without pokery. It was a potpourri of "lifestyle" advertising that you've seen before. The cast of "Glee" meets the "Kids From Fame" and they all have a house party. Lemonade optional.

Is this the way you launch what you hope will be a revolution? Or at least your revolution?

It's tempting to feel that, when it comes to truly great things that come out of Microsoft, the advertising isn't always helpful to the cause.

And yet, at the time of launch, I still thought that when targeting the business community, Microsoft would present its revolution more seriously.

Instead, it was adult "Glee" in cashmere coats , suits, and terribly expensive work dresses.

There might be one or two people who would imagine the following scenario: Apple's ad agency, working on the launch of, say, the iPad, arrives at Cupertino.

The head ad guy looks at Steve Jobs and says: "Hey, Steve. We've got the coolest thing for your magical revolution!"

Jobs: "Oh, yeah? What the f***'s that?"

Ad guy: "Yeah, Steve. We're going to have lots of gorgeous people dancing around, waving the product about!"

I fear Jobs would not have made like Ashton Kutcher in a romantic comedy.

It's not as if Apple's advertising is always either magical or revolutionary. At product launches, it doesn't have to be, because the product itself is the best ad of all.

But the mere idea that a tablet-PC hybrid -- one in which Microsoft had considerable faith -- is a fine subject for a kiddy dance fest suggests some very odd (or, perhaps hurried) thinking.

Not "what were you thinking?" but "what were you drinking?"

With the Surface, Microsoft had a chance to startle real people with an entirely unexpected emotional appeal, through a different form of product.

Instead, it offered a high school musical.

This doesn't mean to say that Surface as a brand is dead or that its next iteration won't ooze gorgeousness at first sight.

But Microsoft has made it far harder for itself to present the Surface brand as something not only to be taken seriously but also as something that will make a real difference to lives and egos.

 

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