Seinfeld, Gates, and Microsoft: brand rebuilding

The new Microsoft ad featuring Seinfeld and Gates has arrived.  People are using words like "dud," "misfire," and "bomb," but I thought the spot was brave and interesting.

Gates_and_seinfeld_from_the_microso More particularly, people are saying the spot is confusing.  Russo of the LA Times says,

"many … viewers are leaving a trail of rancorous confusion all over the web.  People are asking, nay, demanding to know what the minute-and-a-half spot is trying to convey.

Peter Collins offers this case in point:

I watched the commercial this morning online–I may be stupid but I just didn’t get it!  What was the purpose.  What did it have to do with selling computers.  And Microsoft is supposed to be paying $300 million for this series  ???????

Peter, I have bad news.  Please sit down, and we can call your wife in from the waiting room, if you’d like, but you must listen to me very carefully.  Your self diagnosis is exactly right.

The Microsoft spot has a clear task: to rebuild the Microsoft brand.  It is using Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Gates and a particular situation to perform an act of meaning manufacture.  We can say it is good meaning manufacture.  We can say it is bad meaning manufacture.  But we can’t be mystified a) that this ad exists, b) what it means to do, or c) what it has to do with "selling computers."

Microsoft has dug itself a very deep hole.  It is seen to be smug, arrogant, monopolistic, and indifferent to consumer wishes.  What was left of the brand after this misbehavior was pretty much finished off by those brilliant Mac vs. PC ads by TBWA\Media Arts LabSo, hey, Microsoft had to do something.

What they did was call Crispin.  I haven’t been persuaded by all the work of CPB.  Some of the Burger King work seemed to suffer a Steve-O fascination with stunt marketing.  But this spot is interesting. 

Simplifying, we would say that Crispin’s job was to move the brand from the PC side to the Mac side of the TBWA\Media Arts campaign. So, what do you do?  Oh, to have been a fly on the wall at Crispin as they ran through their options!  Oh, to have taught this as a case as a bschool or dschool challenge!  Me, left to my own devices, I got nowhere.  I ran this experiment in my head when I heard that Crispin had been hired and eventually just threw my hands in the air.  I couldn’t think of anything even remotely convincing.  Microsoft seemed to me a little like a meteor so utterly wedged  into the surface of a planet that you really don’t have much choice but to leave it there.  But the new Microsoft spot actually manages extraction.  The brand is not saved.  It’s not repaired.  But it is mobilized a little, and this is a Herculean accomplishment.   This may not be a sufficient act of brand rescue.  But it is a necessary first step. 

Frankly, I didn’t think hiring Jerry Seinfeld would help.  I mean, for all his centrality to our culture in the 90s, his star had faded, his moment passed.  But here he is replaying Jerry from the TV series, that goofy guy who believes he has all the answers and is just smart enough to be right some of the time and interesting all the time.  Mr. Know It All, this was Jerry and especially George on Seinfeld.  Often wrong but never in doubt.  These are guys who believe they can beat the system, only to watch their best efforts spin gently out of control in a slow motion Rube Goldberg disaster that brings embarrassment to everyone.  This is the Seinfeld Crispin recruits for the ad.   

The meaning mechanics of the ad are wonderful:  Jerry’s shoes squeak like a cartoon character.  A store called Shoe Circus.  A family gathered outside the store window in solemn and learned reverence for shoes within.  The meaningful glance between Jerry and Bill that makes no sense.  Seinfeld’s lunatic advice that Bill try wearing his clothes in the shower.  The starring role give churros.  The idea that anyone would want to earn points in a store like this, especially when the card calls them a "shoe circus clown club member."  The idea that computers could ever be "moist," "chewy," and edible.  The idea that Jerry suspected this "all along." 

In a more perfect world,  Crispin might have put Microsoft into company with something like the Wes Anderson movie The Life Aquatic, the one that starred Bill Murray as Steve Zissou.  But there were two problems: Microsoft is utterly out of touch with contemporary culture, and Bill Gates is, as someone once said of Dick Cavett, "spectacularly gentile" which is to say utterly out of touch with contemporary culture.  The Aquatic Life was a world too far.  Some day.  Perhaps someday this will be the "sufficient" act of meaning management.

Well, what does this have to do with selling computers?  I am going to have replace my laptop in the next few months, and despite the fact that I have been an intensely loyal Thinkpad and Windows guy for more than a decade, I am thinking for the first time of an Apple conversion.  And I have to say that this ad, for a very brief moment, actually gave me pause.   Maybe, I thought to myself, Microsoft is not an embarrassing relic after all.  Briefly, very briefly.

And so what is the act of meaning manufacture?  Crispin manages to mine Jerry Seinfeld, a very particularly Seinfeld.  Crispin transfers Jerry’s off kilter way of seeing things to the brand, and this makes Microsoft seem more human, more actual, funnier and more companionable. and most of all, more present to the world.  Is this a good thing?  Ladies and gentlemen, we are talking about a brand that had made itself the paragon of the humorless and the monolithic.  I would say this is work well done.  Crispin earned its dough and then some.  It’s just a start, but what a start. 

The meaning passes through a series of intermediaries.  It must pass from Jerry, this Jerry, and the ads particulars (as above) into Bill and from Bill into the brand.  And Bill plays his part very well, considering.  He seems in every way hip to the joke here.  And this anthropologist is inclined to suppose that some of this ad is a mystifying to him as it is to poor Peter Collins (above).  But Crispin, to their credit, brought him into the ad and found a way to make him work.  (We can imagine how Bill calculated the risk: if Jerry thinks it’s funny, it’s probably funny, and, if Jerry is prepared to share the risk, it’s probably not so risky.)

So everyone hates the new Microsoft ad?  We shall see.  It represents an act of meaning management by one of the best agencies at the top of its game.  It is a powerful first effort to rebuild the brand.  Let’s hope Microsoft sticks to its guns and gives the campaign a chance.  This thing could work.

References

Russo, Maria.  2008.  Seinfeld and Gates’ Microsoft Misfire.  LATimes: Webscout.  September 5, 2008.  here

See the Seinfeld-Gates Microsoft spot on YouTube here.

See the Microsoft PR backgrounder on the campaign here

22 thoughts on “Seinfeld, Gates, and Microsoft: brand rebuilding”

  1. Seinfeld and Gates.

    This new campaign might just be soaking in symbolism. Let me point out an observation that I suddenly remembered about the Jerry character from the TV show.
    As far as I remember the TV show, Jerry has always been a Mac user. We have never seen him use the computer though. Nevertheless in the left corner of Jerrys living room, up against the wall, right by the window, Jerry has a mac computer on the table. You know, a place for working, a place for writing jokes – a place for being fun?

    Seinfeld and Gates – Mac and PC … or

  2. Grant –

    I’m so pleased that you tackled this ad because I have been debating it with friends and colleagues since it’s launch. All we’ve been able to agree upon is “we’ll see.”

    I found the ad intriguing, filled with quick humor, I was actually chuckling out loud when the father outside the store commented on Gates’ shoe style. They’re eating churros! That’s funny all by itself. But, BUT, even as I follow your assertion of “transferred meaning” I seriously doubt they’ll be able to pull it off. Crispin only deserves credit if they complete this hail mary pass. Microsoft isn’t cool, but they’re former CEO is funny. Did you see the video he made dreaming about his last day of work at Microsoft? Hilarious. His ability to act and self-deprecate isn’t in question. What is in question is “why should we care?” I am not a disbeliever in the power of marketing, but even Apple, with all of their brand halo, focus their spots on a physical product, software feature, or more recently, their customer service assisting your switch to their platform. They’re famous ad, launching the iPod with dancing halos ended with “1,000 songs in your pocket.” A reason to believe.

    $300 Million can catch almost anyone’s attention, the question is, once you have it, what do you say? We’ll see…

  3. The nail hit on the head: companionable. This ad does make us feel at home around Microsoft. Not an insignificant feat.

    Speaking as someone who will probably continue using Windows, as much as I admire the Apple packaging, I think these ads represent a competent repositioning of Microsoft as the company we are going to live with, as opposed to the company we always make fun of.

    In an ideal world, we’d all being using Macs, and married to George Clooney. In the real world we have husbands that look like Bill Gates. And we love them.

  4. I’m too old to be commenting on this ad but I will anyway. I haven’t been in the ad business for many years and I haven’t seen this commercial in the TV environment so I really can’t know how it’s going to play. But…

    First off, I’ve always used virtually nothing but Macs and before that I started with the Apple II. So I’m prejudiced. But Gates’s entire style, personal and professional, rubbed me the wrong way, even before he grew into a public figure. He was the Alpha in Microsoft from the very start and his genes and hormones have imprinted themselves into every detail of his company’s output.

    So I sat through the Seinfeld video with glazed fascination. WTF. Was this really happening? Grief. When it was all over, the only thought that bubbled up to my consciousness was … Seinfeld ended ages ago. It was all so-o 1998. Surely Microsoft didn’t want to leave that impression. A week is a long time in the digital world.

    For their $300 million they might as well have run a graphic of “Our Factory,” with organ music. “Look! We’re so solid we can trash $300 million without thinking!” That would have been just as persuasive.

    No amount of image-polishing will help when the underlying product lacks charm. Apple and a few others have the magic touch. Microsoft hasn’t. Maybe the smell of burning cash will give them a lift.

  5. I think they will be going back to the “run tight” phrase the threw around a few times in the ad. First when Jerry said it, and when the hispanics outside the shop said it. This might be just a clever and indirect way of introducing the new benefit or value proposition. It’ll be interesting to see if/how they revisit the phrase in future spots.

    But I’m definitely a fan, if not for the sheer volume of discussion it has generated.

  6. Grant,

    Really thought-provoking analysis. I think reaching any conclusions based on this one ad is a bit like reading the first two chapters of a book and deciding whether it is good or not.

    Is Jerry Seinfeld “dated” and “over”? Yes, I’m sure people in NY and LA think so. But to many people, Seinfeld = hip, funny and clever, but in a familiar way. Most people, most computer users don’t want cutting edge funny, they want familiar funny.

    Grant said it much better and I agree, this ad isn’t, in and of itself, a game changer. But it does slightly change field position to use a football analogy. Apple has been playing deep in Microsoft’s part of the field. This commercial is a really good punt. It gets Microsoft out of the shadow of their own goalpost and buys them a little breathing room.

    Now, as this campaign unfolds will Microsoft be able to play in the middle of the field or even advance into Apple’s Red Zone? I’m not sure, but I do think Microsoft is in a better position today than they were three months ago.

    Lot of football talk there, sorry about that, must be the season.

  7. Now, if only Vandelay Industries would hire Jerry to promote their latex products…THAT partnership would rock! “And you want to buy MY latex products.”

  8. Jason, it was a slow transition, but eventually the sheer cleverness of the Mac vs. PC ads got to me. It is exactly this gradual cumulative effect that I think might work for Microsoft over the longer term. That, or I am just hopelessly inconsistent. Thanks for the close reading. Best, Grant

  9. In my opinion the Mac vs. PC stuff works, and it’s funny. Humour is an interesting battleground for Apple and Microsoft to play in. To me this is partly an advertising response to a competitor’s advertising (of course the “brand” will need to be rebuilt on the strength of product and service innovation, but we’re talking about just the advertising here).

    Choosing to use Jerry Seinfeld is smart, it tells me that, on one level, Microsoft will take on Apple at their own game as far as the advertising goes (humour). But with Jerry on Microsoft’s side the game seems different, less lopsided. And even more than that, the Apple stuff started to feel a little smug, so the particular kind of humour that Seinfeld brings to the table is on the right track. Self-deprecating, super smart and razor sharp.

    It will definitely be interesting to see how this plays out.

    It

  10. You are not as smart as you think you are. Your “reading” of the ad is simply a series of claims without proof. Stick to what you know.

  11. what i think this work does brilliantly, and perhaps what crispin is particular talented at producing, is meaning interruption. the burger king work seems to do this as well, though in an agitated fashion that’s more target appropriate (old man assumption).

    it seems that it is the very nonsense and irrelevance that captures our attention and forces us to watch. there is nothing jarring in this ad to believe that they are trying to excitedly capture our attention. rather they are simply attempting us to look inquisitively. it’s not an interruption of our attention in a viewership sense, but in our relationship with the brand. meaning interruption.

    it reminds me of weiden’s macro-brew MGD work and makes me wonder if the creative that we love so much is the creative that attempts to stop time, rupture our assumptions, break with our pasts – if only we could hold on long enough to let a brand re-build it’s own meaning around it.

    on a second note – there are two dramatically important elements to the “what” of this ad that i think are particularly powerful. the first is the ordinariness, the mundane humanity of it and the second is the connectedness of the actions. there isn’t not a single action in that spot that is not shared. all the memes travel throughout the actors – conquistador, churro, shoes, membership, etc.

  12. I think all the analysis rests on a very tenuous assumption: that people will care. Or, to carry on Rick Liebling’s analogy, I think people will stop reading, not care and not remember.

    All the effort towards meaning creation doesn’t matter unless the ads are interesting.

    And the ads are not interesting. I’ve watched both ads numerous times and it’s hard to remember any scenes for anything but how bad they are.

    The shorts adjustment in the first ad? The clothes in the shower? The pool-filling scene in the second ad? Clipping toenails on the bed? The granny under the car?

    It’s not funny. It’s not clever. It’s not interesting. It feels like a collection of gags done better elsewhere.

    The interesting part is how painful it is to watch. The horror of seeing it all unfold for such huge sums of cash. This feels like a huge gasp for relevance from mass marketing.

    But will people care? Beyond the horror, I don’t think so. Following the story just feels like picking at an ichy scab — it’s irritating and present but it will heal.

  13. i think the discomfort and repugnance indicated by james is further evidence of it’s efficacy. meaning creates meaning and it feels a bit like a case of protesting too much.

  14. I guess I’m pathetically uncool, but I love this ad, and not in the analytical way Grant does (though he makes a good case). I just find it funny, entertaining, and worth watching instead of zapping. But I don’t intend to trade in my Mac.

  15. I wrote a tongue in cheek article on my blog about two weeks ago listing my top ten reasons why Jerry Seinfeld should not be punting Windows Vista.
    Here are some highlights:

    * The campaign is badly positioned. Jerry is 54 years old. He is basically only representing 7% of the global computer users.

    * Making me laugh at witty quips is not going to sway any business decision I make, regarding the future direction of my IT department for the next 3-5 years. Also his jokes and good humor will not cover the ever escalating license costs from Microsoft.

    Here is the link:
    http://bossmanthe.blogspot.com/2008/08/10-reasons-why-jerry-seinfeld-should.html

    Enjoy the laughs!

  16. Interesting post Grant. My own musings on this subject were limited to the feeling that advertising wasn’t, as you say, going to make a very big difference (especially as the association of the old Bill gates with the old bad Microsoft would not be moved) and the criticism that making Bill do wacky things rather than just be atypically human/funny (as in most of the second ad) was a mistake. But in light of your analysis, I wondered if you think that customers and viewers make the same micro-analysis either consciously or sub-consciously?

  17. People are talking about Microsoft again and my prediction is that we are going to be talking about them a whole lot more. I think Crispin have done an amazing job and even though I hear Jerry has finished his work now with MS. It would make a whole lot of sense to hire a big gun, spin the hell out of a fictional price he’s being paid, get peoples backs up and then move on to the meat and potatoes.

    I now want to know what MS are going to do if I’m ever going to reconsider a PC laptop, and I suspect they’ve got some interesting news coming. I feel that from the the work I’ve seen so far that price is going to be an important factor.

  18. after watching this spot for windows:

    i’m convinced there was no pulling of ads due to negative feedback.

    jerry & bill interrupted our meaning and now they’re filling it globally, subverting the meaning that’s been associated with them. i think it’s fair to say that this team is being very wise about how they unroll the meaning around this brand. it’s fair to say that there is a portfolio of identities being managed here, which will take some delicate maneuvering

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