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Seinfeld + Gates = Microsoft

So a whole lot of people around Twitter and blogs seem to feel quite strongly about this new Microsoft spot starring Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Gates. After Twittering, “I thought the Seinfeld/Bill Gates Microsoft ad was kind of funny … Am I really the only one on the planet that feels that way?” I got responses like “did nothing for me. more importantly, what did it do for Microsoft?” (that’s almost perfectly representative of all but one response). So rather than trying to respond one-hundred-and-some-odd characters, I figured I’d write up a few thoughts.

First off, judging advertising, especially without any eye to the effect of the campaign on the business, is purely subjective. Like any taste, take my opinions with a grain of salt. I found it kind of amusing. I mean, the richest (or second richest or third richest, whatever he is now), making fun of himself in a commercial is funny to me.

With that said, though, I’d point to the strategic impetus for the spot. Microsoft doesn’t need to build a brand, they need to rebuild one. There’s no awareness problems with Microsoft, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone in the United States who hasn’t heard of the company, or at least their most popular product: Windows. That moves this advertising into a new realm: Repositioning.

What are they repositioning themselves from? Well, funny you should ask, I just happened to have built a little tool that attempts to answer just that question. Here are Microsoft’s top ten brand tags: microsoft, crap, computer, shit, crash, vista, bill gates, monopoly, pc and sucks. Now of course, these tags are a bit biased, as brand tags skews a little more geek (though not much) than the general public. But anyway, let’s assume they’re pretty accurate. We can throw out “microsoft”, as that doesn’t mean much (you could argue something about ubiquity I guess). Then there’s the negative adjectives: crap, shit, crash and sucks (I’ll leave monopoly out of that for the moment, since it’s also a fact). Finally you’ve got some associations, specifically “vista” and “bill gates” (very interesting that Windows didn’t make the top). Interestingly enough, for those who took less than 5 seconds to come up with their tag, the three most popular are computers, evil and windows (in alphabetical order).

Anyway, let me get to my point. I think there are a lot of problems at Microsoft, most of which can’t be solved with advertising. For one, it won’t solve the fact they put out a dud in Vista is something they’re not going to fix with an ad campaign (OS 9 ring a bell??). However, what it can start to do is make people think about Microsoft in a slightly different way. It starts to soften the company around the edges. As I wrote in an IM to Alan earlier today, you can’t just jump from super-nerd (Microsoft’s perception) to cool guy (Apple) without at first rolling up your sleeves. The ad humanizes Microsoft by making one of the world’s richest men seem like an every day guy.

If nothing else, though, all this debate has meant nothing but good things for Microsoft. People are arguing about their ads instead of talking about how much Vista sucks.

Also, not for nothing, but I find it very amusing that a bunch of advertising pundits who are always arguing for clients to take their word for it and not include all that messaging about this and that are complaining that this ad hasn’t explained enough. But hey.

Anyway, this is all very much my opinion. Feel free to leave yours. Also, I don’t plan on doing this very often.

Also, if this isn’t interesting at all, feel free to ignore it. I kind of got more and more bored of writing it as I went along and might have half-assed it a bit towards the end. My apologies.

Update (9/5/08): Really smart post on the ad by Gartner’s Andrew Frank (via David Card). He nails it with this: “Here’s something I picked up a long time ago at an ad agency that worked for another large technology company: high-tech branding is not about end users or IT decision-makers, it’s about the shareholders. And it’s not about changing their minds about Microsoft’s products, it’s about changing their hearts and their instincts about what kind of company Microsoft is and where they’re headed (and hence what kind of investment they are).”

September 5, 2008


  • Michael says:

    The shareholder angle is interesting and one I hadn’t considered. My question (what did it do for Microsoft?) wasn’t rhetorical. I was hoping for responses and am glad to get some here. The lingering question for me is does humanizing Bill Gates really change perceptions of MS (even for shareholders as he publicly moves further and further away from day to day)?

    If the goal was to turn the conversation away from Vista sucking, couldn’t that have been done in a more sustained way? This spot may provide a short spike, but these discussions, as you point out, get boring quickly. Guess we’ll have to wait for the rest of the campaign to know…

  • Dan B says:

    I wanted to write a long thoughtful comment about this but haven’t had time so I’ll just say this: Remember when everyone touted Britney’s big comeback performance on the MTV VMAs and then she came out and bombed so badly that everyone just stared with their mouth agape? That’s how I felt after watching this.

  • Alan Wolk says:

    Just to clarify our IM conversation, I was in large part agreeing with you though I added that what I was curious to see was the follow up: where will they go from this spot, which I suspect many casual viewers will see as “Bill Gates was in a commercial for Jerry Seinfeld’s new show about a shoe store.”

    But you are 100% right: too often ad agencies bemoan the fact that clients expect the advertising to make up for a product that’s not ready for prime time. Well here, Microsoft’s not asking the advertising to do any such thing. The advertising is just trying to humanize the brand, which is a smart way to go.

  • pablo says:

    It was always going to be a tough job and you say it’s a bit tough to go from nerdsville to black turtleneck in a 30 sec spot, but… CP+B’s mantra has always been to get people talking no matter what. And they’ve done that.

  • avin says:

    good stuff noah. still not sold on this ad but after tearing on it yesterday, im still interested to see where the campaign goes.

    when CPB’s first ads for BK came out, i dont think anyone realized how far that would go, so you never know…

  • Adam Kmiec says:

    All you need to do is look at Google Insights.

    CP+B’s big belief is they want people talking about brands. Sure, us on the cutting edge or in the biz are talking about it. but, what about the rest of the USA. not so much.

    I don’t think you can judge the merits of a campaign on one ad alone. However, I also think the concept of telling stories across multiple ads is useless and wastes dollars. If this was supposed to re-introduce us to Microsoft and the next ad move the introduction forward, I don’t think we’ll see success.

  • Noah Brier says:

    First off, thanks for all the comment. Always nice to get some healthy debate.

    @Michael – Whether or not humanizing Bill Gates really changes perception is something only time will tell. However, you have to hand it to them that it’s an interesting way to go about trying … And as you said re: sustain, we’ll have to wait for the rest.

    @Dan – Wow. It made me smile …

    @Alan – Sorry, didn’t mean to leave that out. And as I said in the conversation, I don’t know if the “Bill Gates was in a commercial for Jerry Seinfeld’s new show” is a bad thing … Again, if it’s all about humanizing (or even celebritizing) …

    @Pablo – “Nerdsville to black turtleneck” made me laugh. Let’s be clear here: Black turtleneck is nerdsville. :)

    @Avin – Thanks. Yeah, we shall see.

    @Adam – Good stuff Adam, thanks. And of course, you’re right, you can’t judge
    it by one ad alone and you can’t judge just the ad without judging the
    surrounding conversation.

  • Sriram Venkitachalam says:

    This is how I judged the ad: something from Microsoft didn’t make me cringe, I didn’t shrug my shoulders and think, “hmm, ok”, but I had a semi-smile. So I like it.
    Mac and pc have their share of good and bad (try using Pages and Numbers, a joke in comparison to office). I see Mac as a brilliant, yet naive, self righteous, punk college student majoring in art who thinks investment bankers are dumb with their formal clothes. And Microsoft is a single minded, organized, 30 something guy who doesn’t even recognize the existence of the college kid cos he’s busy doing genius investment banking, or making faster microchips. To see the college kid’s flaws you’ve got to put him in the real world (isn’t Apple feeling all the heat now with its rapid growth) and to see the lighter side of the investment banker guy you have to meet him during the weekend when for all you know he’s watching Curb Your Enthusiasm on HBO on demand. You put “genius investment banker” & “not as drab as I presumed” together you’re thinking “he’s cool”. That’s exactly what this ad does: shows you that MS has some sense of humor and is so mature and confident, is above attacking Mac.

  • Devin Reams says:

    The update is a very interesting point. I think my girlfriend said it best: “I had a churro today for the first time in years. I feel that the new Microsoft commercial has promoted the wrong product…” (twitter)

  • Gavin Heaton says:

    Excellent analysis, thanks Noah.

    I think that it is important to see this ad not as and end in itself, but as a beginning. This is clearly a line in the sand — one that draws to an end an old way of positioning the brand — and heralds a significant shift. There is more to the story … and interestingly, we are now waiting in anticipation. That’s not bad. Have you ever wondered where a MS ad would go before?

  • amber says:

    this is the first time I’ve watched it. It’s definitely better than those stupid Vista ads where they have a hidden camera and trick people into checking out Vista by calling it Mohave. Those are the worst ads ever.

    I feel like they could have made it a little funnier though, and less….wooden?

  • Jared says:

    I’m down with humanizing the brand and all that crap. But I’m still left asking: Jerry Seinfeld?

    Sure, people still obviously care what he does. But I can’t see how his magnetism outweighs the fact that he’s 10 years removed from his heyday (like Microsoft), and yet here they are talking about the future. Talk about mixed messages…

  • Vikram Alexei Kansara says:

    By contextualizing Bill Gates/Microsoft in a drab, bargain basement shoe shop, the ad sets up “real value” as the antithesis of “cool/design” (Apple). But are today’s consumers, who know chic can also be cheap (Target, H&M, etc.), going to buy that? I think Microsoft is really paddling upstream here and grossly underestimating the increasing importance of expressing personal style through consumer electronics, including PCs. For me, the spot simply reinforces my impression of Microsoft as, well, bargain basement.

  • Vikram Alexei Kansara says:

    Having said that, I think the genius of the spot (in true CP+B style) is that – without having to even say the word “Apple” – it escalates/transforms the Apple vs. Microsoft “culture war” into a true spectator sport…

  • mark rukman says:

    it’s the first shot in a long campaign. the shareholder angle is really one of the more intelligent things i’ve heard about this campaign. why is it that many in our own community are stuck in the 50’s. awareness, product benefit, etc. the game is getting noticed. we have this big lie to ourselves, just because we bought the time, and the creative director thinks it’s good, anyone will care. news flash, most (probably 90%) of the time, they don’t. It’s just wall paper and no one remembers. yes most of the ads i’ve worked on people don’t remember, and i’ve worked on so-called award-winning brands. i did used to work at cpb, and can name a few spots that many would remember, but not many since then.

    why is it that every expert believes this is a science. it’s just a game of bullshit with fancy words

  • Mikej says:

    I kind of work with Microsoft and I am not positive or negative towards the campaign. But I will make two comments:

    Why do you have to be turtle neck wearing like Apple. Why not be a geek… at least people know how to categorise your brand

    Noah, I think over the coming months we should look at the change in brand tags if there are any. Thats where it starts to get interesting

  • Phil Rubin says:

    You make a great point here and it goes along way to illustrate some of the hipocrisy in the ad agency biz.

    While there is so much subjectivity, any analysis or critique of the ad needs to start with strategy and you make this point well.

    Writing great code is like developing great creative, great strategy or doing anything else with greatness – it is not easy. Those who underestimate MSFT and their ability to get it together face great peril.

  • Mikej says:

    this is actually quite funny


  • faris says:

    i like the new one with them in the real people house

  • Whatever says:

    I think you are correct in not doing this very often.

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