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Why Microsoft needs more Seinfeld ads

Did Microsoft's Seinfeld commercials work? You might not think so, but Don Reisinger does.

Microsoft launched a new ad this past weekend showing a delightful four-year-old girl using Windows Live Photo Gallery to upload, edit, and share pictures. At the end of the ad, she shows how "easy" it is to perform those basic functions and says, "I'm a PC and I am four and a half."

Once again, Microsoft is trying to show that there's a lighter side to its operation, which has taken a beating from Apple over the past few years. During Apple's "I'm a PC and I'm a Mac" ad campaign, the Cupertino, Calif.-based company continually suggested the software giant is dull and that Vista can't compete on any level with Mac OS X.

Microsoft's public image declined as Apple gained control of the topic. The average consumer only heard one side of the story.

Microsoft was forced to fight back against Apple and it started its $300 million campaign by enlisting the help of Jerry Seinfeld. The Gates-Seinfeld spots didn't discuss the value of owning a Vista machine and said little about Microsoft itself. Instead, they used Seinfeld's image and humor to convey a message: "Bill Gates is synonymous with Microsoft and just like him, we're able to loosen up, poke fun at ourselves, and we want you to realize that although Apple has painted us in a certain light, we're nothing like that."

Those who follow the tech world, readers of this column, and others [like your editor, Don] believed those ads failed to capture, well, anything positive. They believed that Gates looked awkward on camera. The humor was lost on them, and because they didn't discuss Microsoft products, they saw them as a waste of money.

I couldn't disagree more.

Apple did everything it could to ensure Bill Gates and Company were looked at as dull, geeky, money-mongering jerks with software that provided no benefit over the competition. Microsoft realized that saying, "No, Windows really is awesome and here's why" wasn't going to work because it would only support Apple's claim that the company was boring and business-like. Microsoft needed to do something else to change the tone of the conversation.

It landed on the Seinfeld-Gates ads.

To me, the Seinfeld-Gates ads put the world (and Apple) on notice that Microsoft wasn't a punching bag anymore and they showed that Microsoft was willing and able to change its public image through self-deprecating humor. In those ads, Microsoft wasn't the cunning corporation that wanted to take your money. It was a corporation that could have some fun. For once, Microsoft was able to control the conversation.

"The first phase of this campaign is designed to engage consumers and spark a new conversation about Windows--a conversation that will evolve as the campaign progresses, but will always be marked by humor and humanity," Bill Veghte, Windows Business Unit head said in a memo to employees. "The first set of ads features Bill Gates and comedian Jerry Seinfeld. Think of these ads as an icebreaker to reintroduce Microsoft to viewers in a consumer context."

Product marketing without a good public image is a waste of time and money. If consumers don't like your company, they won't respond to your ads, no matter how often they talk about your products. It's as simple as that. And for years, Apple was telling the world that Microsoft was a second-rate software company. Realizing that, Microsoft first needed to repair its image as best as it could and then get down to the business of promoting its products.

That's exactly what Microsoft tried to do. But it didn't use the Seinfeld ads long enough for them to make a lasting impression and it allowed Apple to hold the high ground. Microsoft's new focus on promoting its products is lost on those who are back to believing what Apple says, that Microsoft is still a second-rate corporation. A four-year-old girl using Windows Live Photo Gallery won't change that.

Say what you will about Gates and Seinfeld, but I think those ads actually spoke to consumers and that more were needed to solidify Microsoft's image. But Microsoft pulled the plug too early. According to Microsoft VP Brad Brooks, Microsoft found that "78 percent of people liked the Jerry Seinfeld-Bill Gates spots." That figure doesn't reflect the opinions set forth by most commenters on blogs across the Web. It's quite possible that although there was a vocal minority that didn't like the Seinfeld ads, the quiet majority enjoyed them.

If that survey is accurate, I think Microsoft needs to get back to Seinfeld and start the process over of rebuilding its image. That's the only way to enjoy a positive return on its marketing investment. Just ask Apple for proof of that.

Check out Don's Digital Home podcast, Twitter feed, and FriendFeed.