New Microsoft ad campaign lives in shadow of Apple’s “1984” commercial

Microsoft has created a lot of buzz about its new multi-million dollar advertising campaign with non-sequitur ads featuring Jerry Seinfeld and their next move could determine if it’s sink or swim in the marketing world, advertising experts say.

The Redmond-based software giant is dropping the famed funny-man after two commercials totaling over six minutes in length. Now it’s kicking into the second gear of an advertising campaign that seeks to reclaim the derogatory “I’m a PC” line from the popular Mac vs. PC commercial from Apple.

“We knew whatever ads we ran first were going to be highly controversial,” says Bill Veghte, senior vice president at Microsoft in a video posted to the company’s Web site. “We needed to run an icebreaker, an icebreaker that humanizes Microsoft and is a little bit zany and different from what the marketplace expects of us.”

Indeed the commercials did succeed in creating buzz – love it or hate it, it seemed everyone had something to say about the nonsensical commercials. The last time such a buzz was created over a computer commercial may have been Apple’s award-winning “1984” advertisement.

Casting an Orwellian vision of a dystopian future, the ad concludes with an Apple-logo adorned blonde heroine throwing a hammer into large screen projecting “big brother’s” image and shattering it. It was Apple’s unveiling of the personal-use Macintosh in a time when IBM dominated the computer market.

“People talked about how it broke with conventions and it established Apple as a rebel or the upstart in the marketplace,” says James Sherret, CEO of AdHack, a B.C.-based advertising agency. “It positioned the brand very clearly as creative free-thinkers.”

Apple’s ad draws some comparisons to Microsoft’s current campaign – it used star power, being directed by Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Alien) and was created with a large budget of $900,000. It created buzz, but left some wondering what would come next. Even the director didn’t know what the commercial was about.

“I got this commercial for Apple Macintosh, and frankly, I didn’t know what it was,” Scott says in a 1996 interview.

But the commercial has gone on to be recognized as a watershed moment for Apple. The commercial is considered one of the best-ever by many in the advertising industry. It’s been awarded the “Best Super Bowl Spot” in 40 years of the game. TV Guide awarded it “Number One Greatest Commercial of All Time” in 1999.

Microsoft probably missed the mark with their advertising campaign introduction, according to experts.

“They’ve been successful in getting people to talk about how they don’t get the commercials,” Sherret says. “I don’t think that’s a positive thing for Microsoft.”

Unlike Apple’s dramatized message of freedom in the 1984 commercial, Microsoft’s ads have no clear message. The debut ad feature Seinfeld and Gates trying on shoes and the follow-up had them bunking with a suburban, nuclear family.

“It would surprise me if the people at Microsoft view this as successful,” says Robin Ritchie at Ottawa-based Carleton University. “My guess is that it’s not accomplishing what they wanted to do.”

The negative feedback found across the Web is evidence Microsoft missed the mark, he adds. The software company is trying to put a different spin on its Vista operating system, but may just be re-confirming that it is out of touch with consumers.

Comments about the Microsoft ads on range from confused, to bored, to irate.

Stage two of the Microsoft advertising campaign is critical, experts agree. Announced yesterday, how the new commercials connect with the audience will dictate whether the campaign as a whole is viewed as a success or failure some years down the road.

Microsoft describes their even newer commercials as “the next phase of a multi-year, multi-million dollar Windows marketing effort designed to reconnect with consumers,” in a press release. The ads will feature a famous line-up including astronaut Bernard Harris and celebrities Eva Longoria, Deepak Chopra, and Bill Gates is still in the mix.

Deepak Chopra declares “I’m a PC” in new ad campaign.

Calling the Seinfeld ads “teasers”, the new television ads will try to earn back the phrase “I’m a PC” that has been turned into a derogatory statement by the Mac vs. PC commercials. A John Hodgman look-alike is featured, as are many other real users of Windows-based computers “such as teachers, cabbies, designers and fish mongers.”

A wide array of Windows users will be featured in the new campaign.

The premier advertisement aired last night during ABC’s 9 PM ET broadcast of Grey’s Anatomy.

“The Seinfeld ads could have been an appetizer leading up to an entrée that will serve as a counter-punch to the Apple ads,” says Kevin Restivo, senior research analyst with IDC Canada. “Apple has made an impression on the public and drawn some interest from Microsoft – proof positive is that Microsoft is making these ads.”

Apple was battling computer giant IBM 24 years ago when it released its successful 1984 commercial. Now it retains its position as the underdog, but the opponent is different. Microsoft has taken the place of IBM as the more dominant competitor that is just not as cool as the Mac.

Apple has conquered the portable music player industry with its iPod, yet continues to play up the rebel identity in its commercials by focusing on the Mac. Mac has only a fraction of the market as compared to Microsoft in terms of personal computing.

“They’ve been able to define the Apple brand at the expense of Microsoft,” Ritchie says. “Strategically, for Microsoft to come up with a campaign to defuse that is a good idea.”

The Mac brand and its commercial identify with young and creative people that feel like they are in the underdog position themselves, the professor adds, but others tend to view as cool.

In the end, the current Microsoft campaign is creating a lot of buzz now but won’t be talked about 20 years down the line. Microsoft’s position as a leader in the market, compared to Apple’s breaking into the market in 1984 in part guarantees that. But there’s another reason no one will talk about Microsoft’s campaign in the future – it’s not very good.

“It could another watershed moment,” Sherret says. “It’ll either be celebrated or it’ll be the advertising equivalent of New Coke, and right now it’s looking like New Coke.”

Crispin, Porter + Bugusky is the Miami-based ad agency behind the strange campaign. It has been successful with campaigns in the past for Burger King (the “Whopper freak-out”) and Best Buy’s Geek Squad.

But when you’re up against a company that’s produced a commercial that’s regarded as one of the best of all-time, it’s hard to not be the underdog.

‘These ads are so much more conventional – it’s tongue and cheek starring famous people and that’s not the first time it’s been done,” Ritchie says. “With the 1984 commercial, there was no ad like it.”

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