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Are Apple's ads really better than Microsoft's?

The generally accepted view is that Microsoft has some way to go to catch up to Apple in terms of brand image. But are Apple's ads really that much better? And if so, why?

As Apple celebrated, Microsoft canceled the company picnic.

As Apple announced results that beat expectations, Microsoft had its first ever year-over-year dip in sales.

As Apple announced a billion app downloads, Microsoft gritted its molars with a view to finally shaking a little of the smugness from Apple's chops.

So you might be wondering, as you sip your weekend cocktail and ponder why the NBA playoffs are even longer than the regular season, just how much each company's advertising might have contributed to these slightly diverse results.

In recent weeks, Microsoft has turned to a strategy of death by a thousand cuts (or, well, at least two) on the Apple brand. Macs are expensive. They're cool for drooling fools. Oh, and did we mention they're expensive?

While Apple has kept on steadily associating Microsoft with turgid, virus-infested slop made by the poorly dressed and pitiful.

It could have been a contender. Is the advertising to blame? CC Robert Nelson/Flickr

But the difference between Apple and Microsoft advertising--and their brands--can only be told partially through these campaigns. The John Hodgman/Justin Long nipple-tweaking campaign is merely a portion of Apple's advertising. It doesn't define the brand. It enhances one aspect of it.

On the other hand, because Microsoft's "Laptop Hunter" campaign is aggressive and timely, it could become the only advertising output by which the brand is defined: We're cheaper, we're angry, and we're just not going to take it any more.

Microsoft unfortunately abdicated from giving its brand lasting positive emotional values when it walked away from the potentially forward-thinking and moving "Where Do You Want To Go Today?" campaign in 1996.

For reasons many, varied, and probably political, the company never found a campaign to better it. Advertising came and went. Consistency was non-existent. Contrast that with even the Hodgman/Long ads--they maintain the clean white backdrop enjoyed by so many other Apple ads. Whatever they say, they say Apple immediately.

If you asked anyone in the wider beyond to tell you about just one striking piece of Microsoft brand advertising in the last 13 years, you might find them looking as if they're trying to recall the name of their twelfth one-night stand.

In fact, the most memorable and, in my view, brilliant effort since then, was the second Seinfeld and Gates ad. Again, Microsoft walked away far too quickly.

In that same period, the Apple brand seems to have gained a strength that not everyone might have predicted. But how much is simply down to Apple's advertising?

It depends what you call advertising. Apple's whole culture is built around the understanding that its very best advertising isn't TV spots or print ads. It's the products.

Apple products are seen far more often than any of the company's ads. They can be admired, touched, played, and stroked. And the majority are visually striking.

The majority of Microsoft's products don't enjoy the same quality of exposure. And certainly not the same quality of design. Which means the onus on Microsoft's advertising should be to create far more drama and positive emotion around the brand. It hasn't happened.

The onus on Apple's advertising is largely to say: "Look at this. Isn't it cute? And cool. Apple? Of course, it's Apple. Who else did you think it was? Toshiba?"

Many of Apple's ads are nothing more than simple product demonstrations. Beautifully executed, celebrating their own simplicity, with often superbly chosen music. But still simple product demonstrations.

As different products are launched, each ad adds to the style and simplicity of the whole brand. And the values that Apple embraces--simplicity and style being just two--are ones that last through time. They matter to the customer.

It is difficult to name two Microsoft campaigns that actually built on each other. It is difficult to name two Microsoft campaigns that even reflected the same spirit, the same ethos, the same sense of a defined brand.

In fact, when Microsoft has been involved with brilliant pieces of work--such as this example for XBox (and, yes, I know this one was banned)- the viewer would be hard-pressed to feel that XBox is anything to do with Microsoft at all. There isn't even a Microsoft logo anywhere near it.

Can one imagine Apple launching any product, in any category, without its advertising identifying it, tonally and visually, as being an Apple product?

In the end, Microsoft, a brand that has considerable strength in the marketplace, seems to have become something of a diffused, defused blur in projecting its image. Microsoft built a business machine. But its brand advertising became like your demented auntie at Christmas: there, but not there.

Perhaps Windows 7 will be launched with a campaign that will lift the spirits and entice the parts that Microsoft advertising has mostly failed to reach for quite some time. Perhaps.

However, somewhere, somehow, the potential strengths of the Microsoft brand have not been projected by advertising. There seems to have been no consistent strategy, no sense, even, of what emotional values the brand should represent.

And now a company that has such a large market share is playing image catch-up. Which is really quite odd.