Microsoft's new ads: A little too PC?

The "I'm a PC" ads show a company riven with self-doubt.

"I know I said I was going to the party dressed as a clown, but what do you think of this pin-striped suit?"

When you've worked in advertising for a long time--especially if you're on the creative side--you learn to steel yourself to expect anything. Otherwise, your doctors prescribe you far too many strangely-named concoctions, all of them ending in 'zepam'.

Which is why Microsoft's decision to regress its ad agency , Crispin, Porter and Bogusky, back to the mean, is merely another day at the Wishing Well.

It is, however, sadder than seeing Hillary Swank encouraged into the next life by Clint Eastwood.

I find myself trying to imagine all the meetings that led to the brave decision to run the Gates-Seinfeld Road Show, even though the first spot was haltingly spotty. ("You want Bill Gates to be funny? Bill Gates isn't funny, OK?")

Then I envisage the pressure put on Microsoft's marketing department this week by those who always claim to know better, those whom some at Microsoft would describe as "well, the folks who, you know, seem to have been wrong quite a lot."

One might have hoped that those responsible for approving the Gates-Seinfeld spots would have managed internal expectations. You don't create something so radically different and potentially market-changing and expect to be clutching favorable data by the time your CEO has finished dinner. A new ad is not a new Intel chip. (Though I know there are some out there who wish it was.)

The internal tension was made public when a Microsoft spokesman declared that no more Bill and Jerry ads had been shot, while someone from the agency slipped that there is already one more intrigue-filled opus in the can.

The world's clowns are a little confused. CC Bob Jagendorf

That's not to say the two different Microsoft campaigns don't come from the same strategy. Clearly, the idea is to subvert the company's perceived weaknesses.

While Gates and Seinfeld addressed Microsoft's tepid relationship with its customers, the new "I'm a PC" work attempts to declare that "It's not fair! It's not fair! That Apple boy is just a bully! He's not telling the truth, Momma!"

The problem, though, is an emotional change of direction that is more intoxicated than intoxicating. Microsoft has chosen to embrace a vignetty spaghetti--a series of testimonials that is a pair of blue slippers to the Gates-Seinfeld ads' pink Conquistador winklepicker.

As I said in my last post on this subject , crucial to Microsoft's ability to create change is the emotional approach of its ads. The radical emotional switch between the Bill Gates of the Road Show spots and the Bill Gates of "I'm a PC and I wear glasses" makes his persona and the brand's appear just a little schizoid.

Crispin, Porter and Bogusky managed to persuade Burger King to persist with the quite loopy persona of the King character just when so many critics, within the Burger Kingdom and beyond, were telling the agency it was plain weird.

The result of that client's steadfastness (and remember, this is a client who has to satisfy some of the most fractious and recalcitrant franchisees in the world) is not only a re-energized brand, but sales that few could have imagined.

To retire Messrs Gates and Seinfeld after their Lewis and Clark journey has barely left Washington State is to give a sharp poke in the eye to one of the better chances Microsoft has had for radical image change.

With just one "I'm a PC" ad, the company reveals the hem of its powerholism skirts and hopes that a modicum of conventional niceness (after Deepak Chopra and Eva Longoria, who might be next? Michael Phelps and Dr. Phil?) will help it achieve its goals.

Perhaps this was the plan all along. Although it would take a particularly fine vendor of asp oil to persuade me that they intended to present the new, very likable Bill Gates for just a few days.

Perhaps the agency is biding its time before encouraging the client back towards distinctiveness. Perhaps the next "I'm a PC" ads will be more adventurous. And perhaps advertising is simply the most perfect job any masochist could hope to enjoy.

As the Queen Mother would always say when she shook hands with eminently Latin-speaking international soccer players before important games: "Bona Fortuna."

 

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