So the much anticipated Microsoft consumer advertising campaign finally kicked off. We first saw the "Shoe Circus" TV spot, and just now the second episode, "New Family", was released. The series can be found on Microsoft’s website, and other usual places on the Web.
Episode 1: Shoe Circus
Episode 2: New Family
Needless to say, it wouldn’t be inaccurate to state that reactions to the "Shoe Circus" episode wasn’t well-received. To be honest, I was a little surprised to hear some positive comments. But I think it achieved its primary goal – to get people thinking and talking about it. As Oscar Wilde said: "There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about".
Then I saw the "New Family" episode, and I found myself giggling all the way through. It was silly, but funny. Although, my reaction may not be representative of mainstream opinion, as the funniest part to me was when Bill Gates cited design merits of using inheritance and polymorphism as bedtime reading to the boy. Regardless, I think we’re starting to get a glimpse of what this campaign is intending to do.
Now this post is not meant to explain what these ads mean, as I don’t have any inside knowledge from the team that worked with Crispin Porter & Bogusky; but rather, my own interpretations based on the discussions I’ve read. I also don’t want to place any judgments on the resulting opinions and/or effectiveness of the campaign. This is more of a discussion on the strategies potentially used in shaping this campaign, as I think it’s much more interesting to try to see beyond the immediate reactions, and look at these ads as results of series of systematically and methodically crafted decisions by a group of really smart people.
What It Is Not
First of all, I think it is worthwhile to talk about what this advertising campaign isn’t.
It’s not about selling Windows Vista. Rather, it is about how Windows in general participates in and connects many aspects of our daily lives. That includes Windows Vista (desktop), Windows Server (enterprise), Windows Mobile (devices), Windows Live (services), and so on.
It’s not a "fight-back" ad against Apple. This campaign is certainly designed to address the popular perceptions created by Apple’s highly successful "Mac guy – PC guy" ads. But the approach is not directly responding to that, and is really focused on the higher-level view of the role Windows plays in the world.
It’s not what we have seen so far. The first episodes are just setting things up for what’s eventually to come, and is not representative of the entire campaign. They are just teasers or "icebreakers"; as Chris Flores put it –
Just as somebody might tell a joke to lighten up a room or get somebody’s attention before changing gears, these first ads were designed to tap people on the shoulder and say "Excuse me. We’re back and we’d love a few moments of your time".
It may be still too early to judge this book by its cover.
Why Not Respond to Apple?
From a strategy perspective, doing so would only validate the messaging defined by Apple’s ads. And trying to "out-cool" Apple is an ineffective solution to the problem as it only forces the "battle" to be played out on the stage that Apple has set. Also, it is difficult to "out-cool" Apple to begin with, as that is typically associated with the minority few that stand out from the majority crowd, which is something only Apple can use to differentiate its share of the market. Plus that approach is so, in a way, high school; thus comparatively someone in college probably shouldn’t use those same tactics. With the level of scale and reach Microsoft is operating at today, "cool" is not something that defines Microsoft’s products. Something else is, and that’s the story Microsoft wants to tell.
Why So Indirect? Why Not Get to the Point?
Instead, these ads seem to follow Seinfeld’s formula "story about nothing", and as a result often elicits responses such as "what the?", "pointless", "a waste of $300M", "Microsoft is so out of it", and so forth. So if there is something positive to say, why doesn’t Microsoft just come out and say it? It’s almost as if there is nothing positive to say about Microsoft.
Ultimately, it’s about connecting with real people (just as the "New Family" episode articulated). It’s about establishing the fact that Microsoft products are essential parts of our daily lives. But they lend no credibility if these ads focus on delivering that message by just stating so; that’s just all talk. It is much more impactful to show how Windows are connected with real people, in real-life situations; compared to the "high and almighty" elitist (or for that matter, "I am so cool you should want me") approach.
And the decision/strategy on how to convey this more profound and complex message and delivering it with such subtlety, is, I think, one of the most brilliant aspects of this advertising campaign.
At a high-level, there are basically two approaches. One is taking a product-driven perspective and tell people directly about how these products are changing people’s lives (e.g., we run some of the most trafficked and reliable websites, how many transactions are being processed daily on various implementations of our platforms, how Windows security is actually comparatively more robust than any other desktop O/S, and so on). The other is taking a people (customer)-driven perspective, and tell stories about how technology in general is impacting our lives, then weave in products where applicable.
Of course, the second approach is considered more of a high-road, and that is the approach this campaign seems to be taking. Plus, this campaign needs to differentiate from Apple’s (which ingeniously combined elements of both approaches), by not presenting messages in a similar manner. Just like all of Microsoft’s competitors are constantly figuring out what Microsoft is not doing and try to differentiate that way, Microsoft has to do something different this time.
Telling the Story
This indirect approach is designed to tell an unfolding story that builds sequentially over time, instead of delivering contextually independent short episodes that are connected only in theme. And to do so, it requires a carefully crafted setup and framework on which subsequent episodes can build upon. This is partially the reason why the initial episodes are so seemingly underwhelming; they were intended to be, just so that they pave the way for the story to unfold and be able to lead the audience through the process.
The concept is a tried-an-true strategy behind many highly successful advertising campaigns, most notably the road-side billboards used in the Burma-Shave ads. It needs to start in an under-promising and unassuming way, but just enough to pique people’s interests and get them thinking and talking (whether negatively or positively), gradually build up and manage expectations accordingly, then over-deliver on the expectations.
But from a form factor perspective, the limited time available in individual television broadcast spots doesn’t provide sufficient space to convey a complex message. By contrast the messaging in Apple’s ads are succinctly simple and direct. So how can we tell a story effectively using this format?
Kevin Schuler, a Technical Evangelist at Microsoft, offered some insights to this aspect:
Since the advent of broadcast advertising, broadcast media has always faced a significant challenge: How to develop a story line and the associated character development in the typical half-hour segment consisting of but 17 minutes of actual content. Even the rare one hour show only had 34 minutes of content. The thinking was that developing characters within the context of the family would be easier for the audience to understand quickly and, therefore, save precious content time. This is a strategy that worked well for decades, only to be changed by Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David who took a huge risk by reversing the concept: Basically, no blood relationships, lot’s of character development, and a rather pointless story line.
In essence, the story in this case is not "nothing", but very subtle things. And these subtle concepts (or characters) won’t become apparent until they have a chance to be developed, and communicated properly to the audience. In retrospect, as popular as "Seinfeld" (the sitcom) has been, the series didn’t do well initially; and similarly for "Friends" as it started off as just another sitcom after Seinfeld.
On the other hand, the strategy is also based on the recognition that well-established perceptions cannot be altered in one 30-second spot, or a series of non-connected individual spots.
Thus the story is still being developed (well, most likely everything technically has already completed post-production and is just being scheduled to be released), and we’re just looking at the initial chapters now.
Just For Fun
The usual conspiracy theorists have already begun to come up with interpretations of what various things in the series represent. Just a small sampling here:
- Bill Gates = Microsoft
- Jerry Seinfeld = Windows
- Grandma = IE (not the latest and greatest, but still does everything around the house, been around 12 years, etc.)
- Mom and Dad = users (asking Windows to do things – financial advice, how much greek coins are worth, etc.)
- Daughter = Apple/Mac (sets up Microsoft and Windows, and frames them into something they aren’t or didn’t do)
- Delivery Boy = Search (Instantly recognizes Bill & Jerry, gives them something for no cost (but a token))
Not sure if that really was part of the grand plan, but it’s just really interesting to see how the story was set up to allow people to draw those kinds of interpretations. And the amount of chatter that is happening as a result, is in one way, testament to the effectiveness of the strategy.
Also, the captions at the end of each episode also kind of says something about what’s coming:
- "The Future – Delicious"
- "Perpetually Connecting – PC"
I just want to iterate again that this post isn’t intended to convince the critics that there’s more than meets the eye, and that there is a good reason why the initial parts of this campaign are so seemingly pointless and obtuse. To that I think time will tell all, and everything will become very clear in retrospect. Personally I just wanted to look at this significant deliverable from the perspective of planning and strategies, and problem solving approaches when given such task. I have learned quite a few things in the process, and am really looking forward to the rest of the campaign.