Opinion: Microsoft, Myths and Marketing (Part One)
- April 5th, 2009
Apple has eaten Microsoft’s lunch in the advertising department for several years, so beginning last year Microsoft lobbed multiple attempts to strike back. However, the result tragically has been akin to watching a short, bald fifty-year old attempt to prove that white men can jump. As companies go, Microsoft is morbidly unfunny. Apple, on the other hand, has a knack for entertaining, biting satire which has resulted in its success with its “Get a Mac” and “I’m a Mac” campaigns, at least in America. Now, I am well aware that some people think that Apple went down the low road with their tactics. I am not one of them. Let me prove it. Here is a great Lenovo parody ad:
Does it mock Apple? Yes. Does it do it well? Yes. Does it do more than take cheap shots? Yes. In fact, out of all of the satirical ads that I have seen, it is probably one of the most honest ones. I can’t find a single fault with it such as any sort of bait and switch or obvious omission of pertinent information. Competition is fierce, and as long as the advertising is ethical; all is fair in the vistas of the free market. Apple capitalized on Leopard’s strengths while at the same time showing Vista’s weaknesses. I would feel differently about Apple’s ads if all they did was point out how bad Vista was; but they didn’t.
So how did Goliath fight back after getting slingshotted in the face by flying apples (which is better than getting egged)?
Mr. Seinfeld was paid a cool ten million for several ads that made no sense. When an ad campaign’s most memorable moment is Bill Gates shaking his money maker followed by the word “Delicious” on the screen; there is definitely a disturbance in the Force.
The Mojave Experiment
Microsoft rounded up a bunch of its customers and publicly showed how ignorant they were by playing a trick on them. I think that speaks for itself.
I’m a PC
Things improved with this round. However, it didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know and horridly missed the whole point of Apple’s campaign. The two men in Apple’s ads were not intended to be real people but anthropomorphized operating systems. Does Microsoft even get that? Nearly everyone I know didn’t take the commercial very seriously because of that very issue. Why should they trust a counter-campaign when the competitor appears to have missed the point utterly? We were treated to some very cute vignettes in which the company’s main product wasn’t mentioned. Not even once. They might as well have told everyone not to think of pink elephants. Oh boy, yep, I just imagined a pink elephant.
Microsoft’s latest commercial has been getting a lot of buzz over the past few days, but lost in the discussion is whether or not the ad is even effective in the first place. I, for one, thought the ad was pretty entertaining, but feel that it ultimately failed to adequately address the actual reasons people decide to switch over to Macs in the first place.
Consumers have increasingly been migrating over to the Mac from the PC for a number of reasons. Price, however, isn’t one of those reasons, and it’s somewhat strange that Microsoft would choose this particular angle to respond to Apple’s “I’m a Mac” campaign. In a way, Microsoft’s latest commercial seems to presuppose that consumers are already thinking about switching, and Microsoft is basically left yelling, “No! Wait! Don’t switch over to Apple, their laptops are more expensive!” The problem is that most people already know that.
Moreover, if price is already an issue for you, then you don’t need a commercial from Microsoft to sway you away from purchasing a Mac. Apple sells its computers on features, and the notion that they’re easier to use. If Microsoft wants to prevent users from switching, it needs to compete on the same level, and point out some of the more beneficial features of its own OS relative to Apple’s.
Pay no attention to that Vista behind the blue screen.
This campaign was also met with a general sense of FAIL and mockery. Things were particularly painful when it was uncovered that at least part of the print version of this ad campaign was made on a Mac. Whoops.
Well fine, at least we’re CHEAP!
Finally, Microsoft has put up something that is at least arguably somewhat in the same ballpark, albeit in the extreme outfield. They too are capitalizing on their strengths (there are super-cheap machines that run Windows) and highlighting Apple’s weakness (they don’t cater to the low-end hardware market). But is this ad particularly honest? Truth in advertising is a chimeric beast. It falls somewhere between exaggeration and Bill Clinton. While it cannot be the skin of the truth stuffed with an outright lie; arguably it can walk the line of the converse. So in the shadowy world of advertisement it likely passes muster, but does it pass your own sniff test? The answer for me is a resounding no. Why? I am glad you asked…
The Girl Next Door
Without saying so, Microsoft leaves the distinct impression that Lauren is just an everyday cute girl that was sent on this mission to find her ideal laptop. Well the fact is that Lauren is an actress. This wasn’t so much of a genuine experiment but a skit. Her parting shot after allegedly leaving the Apple store of “I guess I’m not cool enough to be a Mac person,” was perpetrating the outright lie that the only reason that Macs are more expensive is the coolness factor. No Lauren, you aren’t cool enough to tell the truth, so I think with your new beast you have earned your reward. In case the reader believes that I am exaggerating when I state that Microsoft is attempting to claim that the coolness factor of the Apple logo is the only reason that Macs are more expensive, then let’s hear from Uncle Fester himself:
Ballmer makes that ridiculous statement at about 13:28 in the interview. Here is the audio clip if you just wish to hear that portion.
What about that $500?
Just the cost of anti-virus protection for Windows justifies the mythical $500. For example, Kaspersky anti-virus protection costs $40 a year. If you invested $500 and that earned $40 a year, that’s a return of 8% per year. Excellent compared to bank CD rates – or a 5 year investment in Microsoft stock. Which ignores another important fact: Mac’s [sic] retain their value a lot better than Wintel stuff. My 3+ year old MacBook is worth about 50% of its purchase price. A 3 year old Dell is more like 20%. On a $1200 Mac vs a $600 Dell that’s almost $500 right there. Ouch.
The Storage Bits take
For all his flaws, no high-tech CEO matches Steve Ballmer for pure entertainment value. Who else would urge consumers to settle for their product because they can’t afford the best? Steve Jobs’ Reality Distortion Field can mesmerize millions. Ballmer’s reality distortion field, alas, extends only to his ears.
So much for the complaints of some Windows users that the only point of the Apple ads were to claim that PC users were stupid. After all, the CEO of Microsoft thinks that we Apple users paid more (which I in fact did not) just because we wanted a certain logo.
Now in all fairness, the Associated Press reports that the persons who were filmed did actually believe they were taking part in a marketing research program and that none of the participants chose a Mac. However, a close read of this piece will note that some parameters were not mentioned. Specifically:
It [the advertising agency] picked 10 people who answered a call for volunteers on Craigslist and other Web sites and sent them out with a camera crew and budgets ranging from $700 to $2,000. If they found a computer that fit their criteria, they could keep it.
What questions come to your mind? I would like to know if the volunteers gave their criteria before they were given their budget? Were any of the people given a budget for which there was a Mac that met their needs? For instance, the person(s) who was given $2,000.00: what was their criteria? Did any of the participants have any experience on a Mac? Who’s idea was it to visit an Apple store first (which is an ironic stumble on Microsoft’s part—a PC was her second choice)? In short, how stacked was the deck? Lauren is not talking as she signed a confidentiality agreement with Microsoft.
Lauren’s criteria are also a bit suspect as being hopelessly naïve. Okay, I want a car that is red, has four seats, and is under $15,000.00. First that will automatically severely limit my options. However, the more important point would be my judgment. Why didn’t I consider resale value? reliability? repair costs? warranties? support? mileage? Is Microsoft attempting to show that their OS is great for consumers with shallow requirements who are either ignorant or unthoughtful about their purchases in this economy?
Let me say bluntly that I don’t believe the line that Lauren had no idea that this was anything more than a marketing stunt. She is not unsophisticated and certainly knows how to play up to the camera with over twenty film and commercial credits under her belt. Were all of those shots taken before she “knew” she would be in an ad or afterwards? If before, it would seem pretty foolish on Lauren’s part to make such a blatant slam on Apple when she is an actress looking for work. She wouldn’t so carelessly burn a bridge. It stinks to high heaven.
Was the ad agency unaware that one of their “research candidates” was an actress? That would be a jagged pill to swallow as Lauren has an IMDB page in addition to her home page. An agency really trying to simulate a genuine market research panel, complete with cameras following the person around, would take care that their choices were the average Joes and Janes of the world. The fact is that they weren’t; at least not in this case.
Staging an Apple Store Visit
Another factor that must be considered as to how ignorant that Lauren really was of the actual purpose of this “research” and the timing of the footage that was used in the commercial is the fact that her visit to the Apple store was obviously staged.
Tech Flash provided a good analysis of this monkey business with the following screenshots:
Now, it’s possible that this is all on the up-and-up. Maybe the man was pacing in front of the door, waiting for his wife to buy an iPod. Maybe Apple employees are just that fast at explaining the MacBook pricing structure. Or maybe there’s some other explanation. But watching that part of the video, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the ad was something less than a straight-up, by-the-book account of Lauren’s search for a new computer. In fact, the scene feels more like a mistake involving an extra in a movie or TV show. Normally, that would be fine in an advertisement, of course, but the positioning of this ad as real life makes it different.
What Did Lauren Really Get for $700?
Seth Weintraub at Computerworld took a good hard look at what “Yeehaw, I’m a PC!” Lauren really got. Here are the bullet points (the full article is well worth reading):
It is the epitome of what people dislike about PCs.
1. The operating system installed is Vista Home. Add another $150.00 to get Vista Pro to get the full operating system experience.
2. It runs on a slow AMD mobile processor with DDR2 RAM (the same type of RAM that is used in netbooks).
3. The screen is “abysmal.”
4. As usual, it comes pre-loaded with all kinds of crapware.
5. It comes with 802.11G wireless and 100MB Ethernet which is surpassed by netbooks. Money quote, “2004 called. It wants its motherboard back.”
6. Actual battery life is just over an hour.
7. It is a beast weighing in at almost eight pounds and is two inches thick.
Again, the takeway is that Microsoft will install their software on an extremely shoddy computer.
And this poor girl, the actress that Microsoft hired to play a person who is not an actress, is going to get a heavy, bulky slow Vista Home machine with a poor display, old networking equipment and weak battery loaded up with crapware.
“I’m a PC!”
The Attack Truly is Personal
It’s funny isn’t it? We keep talking about the computer here, not the OS. Apple’s ads regularly attacked Windows, especially Vista. Microsoft’s comeback in all its ads has been defending the “PC guy/girl”, no defense of Windows at all, despite Apple taking repeated digs at it. It’s like someone calling you ugly and stupid and you saying, “Hey, that’s not true! I’m not stupid.” By implication, you admit you’re ugly. By implication, Microsoft admits Windows is crap.
That proves the point I mentioned above about the fine line of snarky advertising. Apple’s ads were not attacking the PC user, despite the effeminate crybabying of some Windows fans. It was attacking the product. Microsoft hasn’t presented any defense of its product; the only “good” thing (if one wishes to see it as a bonus) that is highlighted is that there are some hardware manufacturers who will sell their products at razor thin margins.
Throwing Premium PC Hardware Under the Bus
As demonstrated above, Microsoft didn’t advertise or promote the virtues of its OS but rather the cheapness of hardware upon which it can be found. However, not all PC hardware is dirt cheap. I have only been a Mac user for a few years. My philosophy with computers has always been to buy the best you can afford because you’ll save money in the end. I have a 17″ screen HP Pavillon laptop that I bought over four years ago. Putting aside the fact that it runs Windows (XP thank you very much), it performed very well back then and STILL does. If I took the “Lauren philosophy” back then, I would have been on my third computer by now and not enjoyed very much of the experience. So how much did I pay? About $2,300.00. Four years ago. Before I switched to the Mac, I specced out PCs that would fit my qualifications of quality with features; specifically, I looked primarily at Dells. There was absolutely nothing cheaper than $2,000.00 that I would even consider in laptops. Guess how much my MacBook cost (after some user upgrades—oh that’s right, Macs aren’t supposed to be upgradeable, another myth busted)? About $1,000.00. Admittedly it isn’t my primary machine, or I would have purchased a MacBook Pro which would have been the same price or less than the Dells I was considering.. I ended up purchasing a Mac Pro tower as my primary machine which again was completely competitive with PCs. Yes, I did buy them from the refurbished section of the Apple store; but a deal is a deal. I have had no problems with them; they carry the same warranty; and arrived as brand new as a baby’s bottom. I can’t imagine that Dell is too happy with these ads with its sexy AND expensive Adamo out on the market.
Preying on Ignorance
Just like the biological fact that men are different from women, the protest of bra-burning feminists aside; most computer users have never used a Mac. They have no experience upon which to draw in evaluating these ads and in basic ethics, it is my opinion that Microsoft carries a heavier burden than Apple who was criticizing a platform that a great many people had personally experienced. This makes the “$500 logo” lie even more egregious.
Will These Ads Succeed?
Now despite all this, will this strategy be effective? In the short term, yes. The economy is bad; people want to save money. However, all it will take is for Apple to expose Microsoft’s sins of omission and mispresentation, and I think that Microsoft will get the Apple wedgie once again. I am looking forward to that as long as I never have to see Gates shake his booty again. Microsoft have left themselves wide open for a pretty easy satirical gobsmack by Apple.
Microsoft is showing its Fear
David Zeiler of the Baltimore Sun writes, It’s official: Microsoft scared of Apple:
That Microsoft feels compelled to send Lauren into “The Mac Store” (as she misidentifies it) in an attempt to convince viewers that Macs cost too much for regular people, tells me the company can hear Apple’s footsteps.
Numerous Mac Web sites have deconstructed the ad over the past several days, noting among other things that the $699 Hewlett-Packard laptop Lauren obtains at a Best Buy is a lousy PC. Moreover, the ad ignores why increasing numbers of Windows users have switched away from cheap PCs to Macs, such as the iLife software suite, superior build quality and overall ease of use.
The “Lauren” ad is but the latest sign that Microsoft doesn’t like what it sees in the marketplace, despite having lost just a tiny amount of market share to the Mac.
Apart from stiff competition, the popularity of the iPhone presents another problem for Microsoft: like the iPod, it’s introducing Apple technology to millions of Windows users. Among the factors in the rise in the Mac’s market share has been the iPod “halo effect.”
Hey, if I ran Microsoft, I’d be worried, too.
Expect Redmond’s public assault on Apple not only to continue, but to get nastier. Microsoft doesn’t need to dominate music or phones (as much as it would love to), but the near-monopoly it has with Windows on PCs remains one of its primary profit centers (Office being the other.)
Except for a few writers who claim that Microsoft must have struck a nerve by all of the attention this has received; it appears that this campaign will also be the butt of mockery and more mockery. For what its worth, lies always strike a nerve with me. I’m funny like that. Apparently, I am not alone:
But Microsoft’s (and HP’s) implication that PC vendors are charging cheap prices yet providing non-cheap components is a load of bull fecal matter. The vendors are — as they’ve always done — selling older CPUs and weak graphics, in a huge case, with little battery life, and festooned with stickers like it’s a trunk that just got back from an around-the-world cruise. If that’s your thing, great! Add some software and knock yourself out. But don’t kid yourself into thinking you got anything more than you paid for, or found some sort of computer bargain, or know some secret the rest of us aren’t clued in on. You asked for little, and that’s exactly what you got. Of course, if low-ball is really what Lauren was after, she’d have looked into Linux, but this is a Microsoft ad so we’re only concerned with the price of hardware.
Since I started this piece, Microsoft has released yet another poorly produced (and in my view not particularly honest) ad. That may be the subject of another article as I want to move on to widen the issue in Part Two. Look for it later this week.