Jerry and Bill, we barely knew ye

You try to give a beleaguered company some love, and look what happens.

Microsoft is canning its Jerry Seinfeld campaign after airing only two spots. In its place, we are told, is a direct riff on Apple’s “Get a Mac” campaign, in which the “PC” character is recast in a positive light.

Wow. Where to start?

First of all, Microsoft’s protestations to the contrary, there is no way this is part of some preconceived strategy. You don’t invest the kind of money Microsoft did, or hire a spokesperson of Seinfeld’s calibre, to run only two lengthy, opaque spots that never built to any resolution. The only explanation is that Microsoft flinched. The ads got some good notices, but they were far from home runs, and Microsoft’s management must have realized — or believed — that what they had in the can wasn’t going to make things any better.

What’s perhaps most amazing is Microsoft’s counter-assertion, that the whole truncated campaign was a carefully worked out, perfectly executed effort to get people talking and generate buzz, a strategy which has achieved its aim and so may now be ended. If that were really the case — and I don’t believe even Microsoft’s marketers are that stupid — then their shareholders should demand immediate resignations of the company’s chief marketing personnel. To piss away tens of millions of dollars on an idea that turned out to be a dud is, perhaps, an honest mistake; to blow it on a campaign that was designed to be no more than a damp fart from the get-go is criminal. If my shareholder value was being wasted in so cavalier a fashion, I’d want an explanation, and I’d want a few heads on spikes along with it. No one at Microsoft even seems to get this — that the explanation they’re offering actually makes them look worse.

However bad the rest of the spots were — and, assuming they were as good as the ones that did run, they must have at least been watchable — Microsoft should have ran them. The whole campaign had a whiff of desparation about it anyway, but knifing it in the cradle shows the company to be genuinely adrift, feverishly moving from message to message in the hope that something, sooner or later, will stick. At worst, people would complain that the ads were stupid; now, they get to point out that Microsoft actually agrees they were stupid.

That news was quickly followed by the report that the next batch of Microsoft ads would appropriate Apple’s “I’m a PC” meme to rehabilitate the Windows PC. I was willing to give the Seinfeld ads the benefit of the doubt, but I have no hesitation in predicting that these new spots will fail utterly. I’ve said this before, so I’ll confine myself to the short version: you cannot tell people that Windows PCs are great, because people already know they’re not. A lot of people spend the majority of their day in front of one; a lot more have at least one catastrophic story about how Windows or Office made their life hell. Going on TV and pleading, ex-boyfriend-like, for people to remember all the good times they had together isn’t going to get Microsoft anywhere. To confine myself to the even-shorter version: it’s the products, stupid. Microsoft cannot revive its brand by touting products that suck, no matter how clever the spots are.

One day, the Apple/Microsoft Ad War will end up as a case exercise in marketing and advertising texts as an instance of perfect binary opposites: a company that executed almost flawlessly against a preeminent rival too slow and witless to respond. Can’t wait to see what happens next.

Addendum: the new spot has begun airing. A couple of flashes of humor/cleverness, but otherwise, mostly empty air. Reminds me of that staple gimmick they use in commercials for prescription drugs or financial service companies, where a succession of actors recites the same inane catchphrase (“I’m Claritin-clear!” “I’m Claritin-clear!” “I’m Claritin-clear!”). Before it’s halfway done, you’re just waiting for it to be over.

Thanks to Daring Fireball for the original links.