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.
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 Lab. So, 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.
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.