Big Top Points: the “Gatesfeld” Ad

So the first Microsoft ad featuring Bill Gates and Jerry Seinfeld has run.

The reaction, at least among the Mac web, has been predictable. “Terrible.” “No point at all.” “God awful.”

The ad could certainly have been better. But first, let’s talk about what it does right.

1. Jerry Seinfeld

Many people are claiming Seinfeld is too washed up and out of touch to be the centerpiece of a high-profile ad campaign.Twenty years ago, perhaps they would have a point. But Seinfeld has barely faded from the cultural scene in the ten years since it went off the air. Commercials mine it for material, DVDs still swell the shelves at Best Buy, and it plays in syndication in probably every market in America. The latter point is the most crucial. With hundreds of channels at our disposal, TV shows simply don’t disappear the way they used to, and Seinfeld’s ubiquity demonstrates that it is still quite relevant to the culture at large. It’s no stretch to imagine that it continues to draw new viewers today. Point is, Jerry is still a big deal, and his presence gives the ads an automatic “look-at-this” factor. And if you like what Jerry does — which a lot of people still seem to do — you’re probably going to enjoy the spots.

What’s that you say? Jerry’s apartment on Seinfeld had a Mac? Guess what: nobody gives a shit. If Jerry started shilling for Spider-Man over Superman, then yes, I’d have to call his integrity into question. But the Macs on Jerry’s show were props; he never used them or spoke about them, and no one but computer nerds care.

2. Bill Gates

A while ago, I scoffed at the idea of using Bill Gates in a marketing campaign, despite the fact that he is the most well-known person in the computer industry. My reason was that Gates is a notably poor public speaker, and that next to John Hodgman’s lovable PC character, Gates is a stiff whose awkwardness inspires a mix of pity and mild revulsion, at least in me. The ad gets around this problem in a very simple way: it limits Gates’ utterances to short (like, three or four words short) declarative statements, leaving the heavy lifting to Seinfeld. (Ironic, when one remembers the criticism Jerry took for his poor acting on the show.) Gates comes off looking like a good sport, and able to at least sort of hold his own with one of America’s premiere comic talents. Not bad.

3. A few good laughs

The spot wasn’t a screamer — it wasn’t supposed to be — but some of the funny moments worked, and they tended to favor Gates. His “Platinum Shoe Circus Clown Club” card, with its dweeby teenage photo, is the ad’s funniest moment. I also liked his throwaway line about “Big Top Points,” and the fact that he and Jerry are munching churros on the way out of the mall, a subtle return to their first exchange.

4. A taste of things to come

THE FUTURE, a card reads at the spot’s conclusion. This is the first volley of a long campaign, and if nothing else, the spot leaves you wondering what they’re going to do next.

Now for the bad parts.

1. Seinfeld

To my view, much of the humor of the ad falls flat, and it seems to be mostly the material intended to be “Seinfeldesque.” The whole routine of Jerry breaking in the shoes, fitting Gates etc. feels forced, and Gates’ nonplussed expression doesn’t help to sell the bit. The smash cut of Jerry showering in the shoes was a blatant steal (“homage,” if you prefer) of Kramer washing his dishes and tossing salad while showering. The business with the onlooking crowd was annoying; yeah yeah, they’re talking about the “Conquistador” instead of Bill Gates and Jerry Seinfeld. Predictable, and not funny. Perhaps worst of all, the capper to all this — the point when Jerry actually asks Bill about Microsoft, the point to which the whole ad was presumably building up — completely whiffs it. Cake-like edible computers aren’t desirable, funny or even very interesting; they’re just strange, and following the notion with a shot of Gates shimmying his doughy ass is the lug nut atop the sundae. As I said, I don’t think the spot aspired to be a laugh riot, but for a 90-second ad, too much of the funny missed the mark, including the one part that really needed to work.

2. Payoff

The ad clearly is intended to be the cornerstone of a long campaign, but that doesn’t relieve it of the responsibility of delivering some kind of takeaway in the here and now. The ad risks coming off as twee, self-satisfied, indulgent, because the whimsy isn’t serving any apparent purpose. Microsoft is a brand many people associate with frustration, with their time being needlessly taken up by nuisances and distractions, and I can see many people looking at the ad as more of the same. (As, indeed, many already have.)

3. Microsoft

This is more of a conceptual critique, and one I’ve raised before. One can’t watch this ad, or contemplate the many yet to come, without wondering what Microsoft is hoping to achieve with all this effort and money. Microsoft’s fundamental problem is its products, not its image; the latter merely is a symptom of the former. The driver headaches, slowness and incompatibility issues faced by untold Vista users are real; the failure of Plays For Sure and the struggle of the Zune to gain traction are real; the millions of burned-out X-Box 360s are real. Microsoft today comes across as simply too big to effectively compete, whether the goal is a satisfactory PC user experience, a viable online search strategy or a reliable game console. Any chuckle that the Gatesfeld ads manage to wring might be immediately soured by a dead X-Box, a Windows XP feature inscrutably and inexplicably relocated in Vista, or a Zune user wondering why he can’t buy music with actual money like the rest of the free world. The funny-weird ads might well make people feel a little better about Microsoft, but imagine how much better people might feel if the spots demonstrated a commitment to better products. Perhaps they will, but if so, they aren’t off to a very good start.

All negativity aside, the ad was at least a partial success, engaging viewers’ interest and effectively paving the way for more to come. Even if what follows doesn’t gain the ubiquity or effectiveness of “Get a Mac,” it could lead to at least a little goodwill headed Microsoft’s way, and at this point, I’m sure the company will take all it can get, even if it doesn’t come cheap.