Why Microsoft's ads are so bad.

Advertising deconstructed.
April 20 2009 1:43 PM

Who Hired This Kid To Pitch Windows?

Microsoft's recent string of extraordinarily bad ads.

The Spot:A little girl named Alexa takes digital pictures of a fort she made, downloads them to her computer, and then stitches them together into a panorama using Microsoft's Windows Live Photo Gallery. "I'm a PC and I'm 7 years old," says the beaming child. "It's that easy," says the on-screen text.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

This ad suggests that Windows is so easy and intuitive even a kid can use it. It's an age-old sales pitch—and often an effective one. But in the context of a computer ad, it's badly misplaced. Who among us doubts the superior technical savvy of the modern child?

I mean, take a look at these precocious moppets. In another spot, a 4-year-old sweetie named Kylie tweaks a photo using image-editing software and then (giggling all the while) e-mails the resulting file to her parents. In a third ad, an 8-year-old named Adam creates a soundtracked slide show. Hooking his computer up to the TV, he says, with terrifying self-assurance, "I'm gonna screen this puppy for ya." Really, it wouldn't surprise me if the next spot in the campaign involved a 6-year-old boy launching a denial-of-service attack on the Ukrainian government.

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How are these whiz kids, who've been plugging in USB cords since they left the womb, meant to reassure anyone over 12 that Windows is easy to use? The campaign could make its point more persuasively by showing doddering 80-year-olds smoothly clicking their way around the operating system. That's something Microsoft has been willing to put online, but so far hasn't aired on TV—perhaps out of fear that an old-person stink might rub off on the brand.

These "rookies" spots are the work of the ad agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky. Crispin is, in purely aesthetic terms, my absolute least favorite ad shop. Known for its uncanny ability to attract attention with buzz-building spots (e.g., by pitching Burger King kids' meals with a parody rap mashing up SpongeBob SquarePants and Sir Mix-a-Lot), Crispin was hired by Microsoft to help bring some sizzle to a flagging brand.

At first blush, it seemed an incongruous fit. I wondered how well an agency that specializes in fratty snark and Cro-Magnon masculinity could represent a company that seems intractably geeky and earnest. Thus far, results have been mixed. There was that baffling interlude when Bill Gates and Jerry Seinfeld wandered the country making small talk. (It quickly fizzled.) On the plus side, I thought it was smart when Crispin stood up to Apple's smirking "I'm a Mac"/"I'm a PC" campaign—and I enjoyed the sight of PC users asserting their not-quite-as-nerdy-as-you-think humanity. In other efforts, Crispin has fallen back on a favorite crutch: documentary-style "reality" footage. They've employed this technique for Burger King in the Whopper Freakout and Whopper Virgins campaigns, and they've tried it with Microsoft in the newer "laptop hunters" spots. *

Slate's Farhad Manjoo has already torn into the "laptop hunters" ads, which show people shopping for computers on Microsoft's dime. The big problem with the campaign—other than the revelations that redheaded Lauren, star of one of the ads, is an actress; that she bought a sucky laptop; and that the whole thing might have been scripted and staged—is the central premise, which actively propagates the notion that PCs are a cheap fallback you settle for when you can't quite afford that Mac laptop you crave. The game is given away when 1) Lauren dejectedly observes that she's "just not cool enough to be a Mac person" and 2) a guy named Giampaolo, in a follow-up spot, fondles a Mac notebook as he purrs, "This is soooo sexy."

Those are limbic-level responses. They're the kind of deeply emotional brand associations that a company spends years and hundreds of millions of dollars trying to create. Apple marketing has apparently succeeded so completely that we now see people lusting after Macs even inside Microsoft ads. It would have been wiser for Crispin to edit this stuff out.

Now, I'll admit that I do enjoy hating on Crispin. And I'm convinced they're an awful match for Microsoft. There's a condescending tone to all these ads—as though hipsters and frat dudes are faking empathy for a dowdy alien culture that they don't understand. (Shocker: Crispin uses Macs.) In this case, though, I don't think I can fairly pin all the blame on them. Microsoft marketing has flailed of late no matter which agency is behind it.

Consider recent ads for Microsoft's suite of enterprise software—programs that handle payroll and customer-relations data and such. The target this time is not the home computer user but, rather, businesspeople who make the technology decisions for their companies. Ad agency JWT created this campaign, and it's even worse than Crispin's. The spots feature scratchy audio of vapid phone interviews in which executives spout meaningless blather. (Actual sentence from the CEO of Quiksilver: "You have to do things at the speed of light these days to stay ahead of the wolf pack.") In case the interviews aren't boring enough, there's plenty of busy, confusing animation to distract you from them. To top it all off, it appears the campaign has not one but two equally asinine taglines: "People ready" and "Because it's everybody's business."

The deeper issue here isn't some weak advertising. The ads are just an outgrowth of what's going on at the company. According to BusinessWeek, Microsoft is "facing the most serious competitive threats in its history." Its operating system is being challenged by Linux, Mac, mobile-phone, and netbook platforms. Its software applications are being replicated by cloud-computing services such as the ones offered by Google. In general, while still hugely powerful, Microsoft seems uncertain and off balance.

Which may be why the "laptop hunters" ads have so far mentioned Apple, HP, and Sony, and why JWT's ads put the spotlight on companies like Quiksilver, Method, and Coca-Cola. When your own brand is a mess, you'd much rather talk about someone else's. And when the foundations of your business are starting to sprout a few cracks, even the slickest advertising in the world can't paper them over.

Grade: A cumulative D-, for a wide variety of lame ads. And, to pre-empt the hordes: I'd rather not get swept up in your overblown, Macs-vs.-PCs religious war. May I politely request that you battle it out elsewhere?

Got an ad you love, hate, or can't for the life of you understand? Send your suggestions to adreportcard@gmail.com.

Correction, April 28, 2009: This article originally stated that Microsoft's "Mojave Experiment" was the work of ad agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky. It was in fact the work of the agency Bradley and Montgomery. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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