The Windows “I’m a PC” campaign

I_am_a_pc_post_3 On the weekend, I’ll be talking at AIGA in New York City.  My argument is that designers could be the ones inside the corporation to deliver cultural intelligence.   This would make them, among other things, the ones who help protect the corporation from the "blind side hits" produced by the perfect storm of contemporary markets and contemporary culture.   

How to make the argument?  Well, I think designers armed with a knowledge of culture could have helped rescue Microsoft from its brand ignominy.  As it was, this achievement came from the geniuses of Crispin Porter + Bogusky.  And who knows, exactly, how they came to their revelation.  But here’s how a culturally-minded designer might have done it. 

Our culture has long been predicated in a simple distinction between the mainstream and the avant garde.  This construction helped us understand the bourgeoisie as a group of people committed to convention and la doxa.  They are, so the stereotype tells us, nervous nellies who are most reluctant ever to depart from their slavish conformity.  Thank God, says the stereotype, for the avant-garde.  These are risk takers who care nothing for convention or materialism, who bravely throw their personal comfort and safety to the winds in pursuit of artistic truth and social justice. 

As cultural distinctions go, this was pretty crude, but it was extremely convincing.  It was quite customary to find that people making popular culture after World War II tortured themselves with the idea that they were bourgeois when they ought to have been avant garde.  This distinction ruled. 

Sometime in the 1990s, something happened.  Our two-part system exploded.  Now in the place of an inside mainstream and an outside avant garde, there was a great fragmentation.  The mainstream lost its ability to police the tastes and believes and behavior of most people.  The avant-garde lost its ability to control the restless, experimental margin.  Both hegemonies lost their coercive power.  (This was an especially bitter pill for the avant garde because it liked to think of itself as a plunky band of misfits who fought the hegemony and not as an interested power-player in its own right.  But of course they were.)

In the place of our founding duality, there were many groups who deferred neither to the center or the margin  They simply went their own way.  Yes, of course, they could hear the impatient scolding that came from center and edge, but, no, they weren’t much interested.  They were now prepared to go their own way.  Respectable?  Who cared?  Hip?  Who cared?  The distinction was dead.   

This cultural architecture is precisely what is at play in the Apple vs. Windows contest.  Apple choose to ally itself with the avant garde position.  And this was of course pretty easy to do.  Microsoft was clueless, bad tempered, and unimaginative.  And Apple was, or became, the brand of choice for hipsters.  So the Apple vs. PC ads almost wrote themselves.  All the agency really needed to do was to find two characters who would capture the essential differences between the brands, and of course they did.

And for awhile this was a brilliantly successful campaign.  I felt its siren call and in my most recent transition between laptops I almost moved from a Windows machine to an Airbook.  And I have to say, that when I heard that Crispin Porter + Bogusky had taken on the task of giving Windows new credibility, I despaired.  I mean, surely Microsoft and Windows were beyond saving. 

Anthropologist, heal thy self.  What I did not see was that there was a cultural opportunity.  I did not see it, at least, until Crispin Porter + Bogusky rolled out there "I am a PC" spot.  But of course.  Why didn’t I think of that!  There was a third position, created by the great cultural flowering of the 1990s.  If Apple was avant garde, the path was clear for Windows to be the new alternative to the alternative.  It could step out of the old contest that left it a clueless and bumbling mainstream play.  It could embrace the great cultural efflorescence that emerged of the1990s and make itself a brand too concerned with real difference to care about merely hip difference.  It could embrace real diversity instead of the single, predictable difference that comes from being cool.  It could embrace authenticity instead of a pose.  At a stroke, Apple was made to look a little precious and a little self important.  Hats off to Crispin Porter + Bogusky.  (If anyone can tell me the names of the people inside CP + B who deserve particular credit, I would be grateful.)

This is what cultural literacy is good for.  As I say, we can’t know how CP + B did it, but it’s clear that a designer in a strategic mode could with the right training could have been the one who gave Microsoft this opportunity to tunnel out of its captivity.  And what’s that worth?  A place in the C-suite and no less. 

References

McCracken, Grant.  1997.  Plenitude.  Toronto: Periph. Fluide. 

See the CP+B website here

Post script

Since writing this, I’ve decided not to use it on Saturday at the AIGA talk.  I hope readers of This Blog who happen to be there will come up and say hi. 

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Wordle.net for the image. 

 

11 thoughts on “The Windows “I’m a PC” campaign”

  1. I couldn’t help but think of CP+B’s work on Burger King a few years back. They created a website that sold creepy-looking masks of the Burger King for $9 a pop. I remember seeing many of those masks sell on ebay for as much as $35. I think this was shortly as the the effects of “Super Size Me” and the Atkin’s Diet craze died down.

  2. But Grant, how do you reconcile your argument with the fact that most folks in the computing/IT community deride the MSFT campaign? And here I don’t mean the devoted Mac fans, I mean the typical Slashdot reader, Register reader, etc.; the folks who write Perl scripts to solve the Sunday morning NPR puzzle (yes, I’m married to one …) I can argue that that audience is “geek hipster” of a sort, and I’m not sure that your model captures or helps us to understand their reaction. Perhaps you’ll say that their response is uniformly anti-Microsoft, regardless of what MSFT does, and that’s pretty true. But your model does not fit with my experience of this campaign.

  3. Lynne, lovely incisive question. Thanks. I agree with you that the industry insiders will scorn this campaign for the same reason they scorn Microsoft. But I think the real target for this advertising was not insiders and not geek hipsters. It was people like me on the margin who could feel themselves falling into the gravitational field of the Apple campaign. We might even say that the Apple vs. PC was meant to deputize people like me with insider and hipster coolness. I think PC+B wanted to get to a larger, group of the unaffiliated, neither cool nor geeks, and give them a reason to buy PC, give them, that is to say, a way to buy Windows and maintain their self respect. Thoughts only. Best, Grant

  4. This campaign is exciting as hell, simply from a cultural perspective. when was the last time we had two juggernauts going at it like this? i think what criticism of this campaign misses is exactly how dominant apple has been in shaping the aspirations and imagination of a generation of computer, media, consumers. these war-room conversations, i imagine, were about saving the microsoft brand from a fundamental irrelevance in the imagination of the young and, as you say, the uncertain.

    i think you’re right that apple’s campaign is now made to look a bit simplistic and binary. but this is only because CP+B chose to burrow into the imaginary frame that apple had set up. i think it takes some balls to propose to Microsoft that you simply use apple’s binary set up and then explode it with traditionally avant-garde personalities. (CP+B gets the social mimicry of us all i think particularly well. all human all the time).

    it remains to be seen if PC can deliver from a product perspective and if they can sustain this new set of values for the next bunch of years . . .

  5. Now all MS has to do is deliver on a product.

    I gave up counting how many friends and acquaintances have had really serious problems with Vista and have downgraded or given up all together. It probably is the case that they are overstating their pain, but there is a very strong perception the product has problems.

    MS seems to have moved away from the term Vista in the newest ads … probably very deliberate.

  6. It’s interesting to hear you talk about the “siren call” of the Apple ads. It does seem that while Apple is geared towards stealing market share from the PC world, MS’s new, “I am a PC” seems to be more about holding/retaining market share. I’d be interested to hear what you think of this reading, but I interpreted their ads as saying, “it’s okay to be a PC user; don’t believe what Apple says, we’re not total losers.” As an Apple user, for example, the “I am a PC” ad doesn’t feel like a siren call to me.

  7. If all great ads are just fundamentally about creating positive associations with brands, regardless of any specific functional message, I think these spots (and the Gates/Seinfeld ones that ran first) definitely do that for Microsoft. Finally, PC users have something to smile about instead of having to deal with the smirking smugness of the Mac user. I love the way that Microsoft has reframed the argument from an us vs. them paradigm to something that’s way more inclusive. It might not be a siren call, but I think the battle for the consumer’s heart will be a long one for Microsoft.

  8. I’m not sure whom the ad is intended to influence–I suspect, like Michael Powell, that the intent is defensive (hold onto the customer base) rather than aggressive. Since I am not in that target group (I only use Windows at work because that was what was put on my desk) it’s hard for me to introspect the degree of cultural validation a PC user might feel when viewing the ad. (The only place where I might fit in to that target group is that I am so not a hipster.)

    From my point of view, the new MSFT ad is too bland. I don’t get why I would want to be anything like the Windows users it shows.

    The ad also doesn’t poke hard enough at Apple by linking up its message with the hard truth it has in its favor–there are LOTS more applications in zillions of niches for Windows compared to OS X. They should make fun of us Mac users for being cosseted, unadventurous types who willingly forego 90+% of all the software in the world just so we don’t have to look at some ugly graphics.

    At least that’s how I’d try to spin it: Only hopeless wimps are afraid to venture out of Steve Jobs’s cocoon. They probably stick out their pinky fingers when sipping their lattes and use lots of expensive products in their hair.

  9. Does the marketing appeal work if MS can’t deliver?

    Fact is, even with the convergence we’ve seen, MS never seems to quite reach Mac’s level of intuitive plug and play functionality. MS often provides superior functionality, but only if you climb the learning curve. Folks who have already climbed the curve tend to fail to notice this.

    Presuming a good level of proficiency, does one or the other really hinder productivity or creativity? Probably not. Once you reach that level it becomes an almost coke-pepsi argument.

    Why won’t MS be even more daring and take aim right at Mac users, instead of just trying to protect market shareI. MS really wants mac users to switch to PCs, al they have to do is bundle their much lower cost with some sort of satisfaction guarantee or marketing promise of the same.

    Mac users would love to pay $400 instead of $1100 for a new laptop. But not if they have to learn what a C drive is. 🙂

  10. Grant–I checked out a job with CP+B as an in-house ethnographer about 5 years ago. At the time I did not have enough experience to qualify. But I wonder if they did find someone for that position, since as you suggest–they seem to have ther finger on the pulse of culture (which they could arguably do without ethnographers).

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