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.