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.

Time to Kill the Nano

After weeks of rumors, it seems nearly certain that the new iPod nano, debuting Tuesday, returns to the vertical form-factor of the first two iterations, a reversal from the “fat nano” Apple debuted around this time last year. (Here’s the shot if you haven’t seen it yet.)

Assuming this is all true, the move seems oddly retrograde to me. Apple, more than most other companies, prefers — perhaps even needs — to present each new product as an evolution from what came before. A new iMac design isn’t just different: it’s thinner, or lighter, or more ecologically friendly, in addition to the usual speed and storage improvements. Most iPod iterations so far have followed this pattern. The second nano featured a more durable metal enclosure, its successor a horizontal layout that allowed for a wider, video-friendly screen. Other iPod updates have added a non-mechanical scroll wheel, color screen, and so on.

The fourth iPod nano appears to be moving backwards, returning to the visual style of the second model. It may be this year’s models will boast new functionality not apparent in the spy photos, and that such functionality may make aesthetic considerations irrelevant. But it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the fat nano simply didn’t work, and that Apple was retracing its steps to a more successful and well-received design. (I won’t entertain the notion that the form factor was inspired by the Zune.)

The nano would appear to have come to the end of its road, at least in regards to its design. It’s time for something new.

It’s time for Apple to kill the nano.

From a normal business perspective, this would be foolish — the nano still sells well, most likely remaining the best-selling iPod model, as it has been since its release. The retro model to be unveiled this week will undoubtedly sell well and give Apple another successful holiday quarter.

But how different from the Apple of 2005, which was in the exact same position with the nano’s predecessor, the iPod mini. Ever fearful of being leapfrogged by a competitor, Apple saw the mini as vulnerable, and decided that if anyone was going to kill their top-selling product, it was going to be them. The mini was terminated and the first-generation nano appeared in its place. The audacity of the move was nearly as stunning as the player itself: with the 2005 holiday shopping season about to begin, Apple chose an inopportune time to roll out a completely new product, and many observers felt that the nano’s early supply issues would have been avoided (and Apple’s holiday sales better) if they had waited until the following year to carry out the switch. Besides, who in their right mind kills a market-leading product? It’s like some action-movie badass who carves his own chest before going into battle; Apple’s competition must have been both baffled and scared shitless.

Today the iPod touch is arguably Apple’s “flagship” media player, its sleekest, most forward-looking and probably most desirable. But for the majority of buyers, those with small music collections and a need for a small and unobtrusive (but still usable) player, the nano is the best choice. Apple needs to reclaim the functional and aesthetic leadership in this space, and show its competition it’s not afraid to throw the dice on something new, bold and innovative.

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.

You, too, can read a movie.

A fantastic post today on Roger Ebert’s blog about analyzing the visual effect of movies.

In simplistic terms: Right is more positive, left more negative. Movement to the right seems more favorable; to the left, less so. The future seems to live on the right, the past on the left. The top is dominant over the bottom. The foreground is stronger than the background. Symmetrical compositions seem at rest. Diagonals in a composition seem to “move” in the direction of the sharpest angle they form, even though of course they may not move at all. Therefore, a composition could lead us into a background that becomes dominant over a foreground. Tilt shots of course put everything on a diagonal, implying the world is out of balance. I have the impression that more tilts are down to the right than to the left, perhaps suggesting the characters are sliding perilously into their futures. Left tilts to me suggest helplessness, sadness, resignation. Few tilts feel positive. Movement is dominant over things that are still. A POV above a character’s eyeline reduces him; below the eyeline, enhances him. Extreme high angle shots make characters into pawns; low angles make them into gods. Brighter areas tend to be dominant over darker areas, but far from always: Within the context, you can seek the “dominant contrast,” which is the area we are drawn toward. Sometimes it will be darker, further back, lower, and so on. It can be as effective to go against intrinsic weightings as to follow them.

It must be the disgruntled ex-academic in me, but I love practical textual analysis like this. There’s much more; you must read the whole thing.

And fuck everybody, now that I think of it.

As you all know, we lost a true comic master yesterday when George Carlin died at the age of 71.

As I wrote before, he was the only comic who never seriously tried to be more than that. Sure, he did a few movies, and one failed sitcom which he had to know didn’t have a chance of getting off the ground. But standup was his true art form and his true gift, and no side project or diversion was ever allowed to overshadow it. Consequently, he had an unmatched capacity to reinvent himself, morphing from successful mainstream comic to countercultural icon, to warped observational comic (think Jerry Seinfeld with cursing and pussy references) to raging critic of the social scene. I don’t know that there’s been anything like it in the annals of American comedy. Richard Pryor started out as a Cosby imitator before finding his true voice, which he eventually lost to drug abuse and a shitty movie career; Steve Martin walked away from the stage while at his peak; Eddie Murphy and Robin Williams allowed themselves to be turned into noisome family entertainers, though Williams occasionally still trots out his decades-old shtick; Jerry Seinfeld did his greatest work in a TV studio, not on stage; and Jay Leno, despite doing some hundred-plus dates a year, hasn’t delivered any memorable material since taking over the Tonight Show. (Bill Hicks’ impersonation of Leno blowing his own head off with an Uzi (“What the fuck did I do with my life?! I used to be funny!! BRTRTRTRTRTRTRT!!”) was funnier than anything — perhaps everything — Leno has done in the last two decades.)

For the last 20 years, despite occasional flavors of the month, Carlin had no rival as the preeminent American standup. The ladder of American comedy has lost its top rung.