Despite the dire warnings from our political overlords, Microsoft has blinked: they are giving up on the Gates-Seinfeld campaign after just two spots.

There are people who actually thought the ads were terrific, and I must admit that I found them mildly entertaining in a last-seaon-of-Seinfeld way.[^1] They generated a lot of buzz, which is a kind of success, but on every other level they failed as advertising.

Image Ads Don’t Work

The truth is that the Gates-Seinfeld campaign, like much of Microsoft’s prior advertising, has been an “image” campaign. They’re not trying to sell you anything; they just want you to feel good about Microsoft.

Is it ever prudent to use shareholders’ money to beg the public to like a company’s management team? Within a company, part of an executive’s job is to “rally the troops” and get all the employees excited about their work. There’s no doubt in my mind that getting employees (particularly “knowledge workers”) truly committed to a project is the best way to boost productivity. But why take such cheerleading out to the public?

I realize that there’s a whole industry focused on creating “positive brand image”, but I just don’t see that image campaigns are worth the money. Believe it or not, Apple doesn’t do image campaigns. Neither does Google, or Nintendo, or Starbucks. These companies build great reputations as a byproduct of their core businesses. Trying to make ads which shoot straight for a positive brand image is like trying to generate sales with ads touting how little money $29.95 is without mentioning the product on offer.

Apple’s Ads

It’s easy to confuse much of Apple’s advertising with an “image” campaign, but there’s an important difference: every Apple ad is trying to sell you a specific product. The “I’m a Mac” campaign isn’t about how great Apple is as a company; each spot presents one clear reason to buy a Mac instead of a PC.

The iPod campaign can be considered an image campaign, but for the iPod’s image, not Apple image. These ads aren’t trying to get people to like Apple’s management team or marvel at the credentials of its research team. They’re trying to make the iPod look cool. In fact, I’d say that they’re trying to position the iPod as not just a piece of functional electronics but a fashion accessory. Whether you like such positioning or not, these ads are giving you concrete reasons to get off the couch and by a new iPod: even though your current one works just fine it’s not in this year’s style, and getting some generic music player would be like wearing sweats instead of wearing Diesel jeans. This isn’t a commentary on the iPod product itself (which I think has technical advantages as well)—it’s just the aspect of the iPod advantage that the ads emphasize.

Microsoft’s new campaign

Microsoft will be launching a new campaign tonight which is a direct response to the “I’m a Mac” ads:

…the stars are everyday PC users, from scientists and fashion designers to shark hunters and teachers, all of whom affirm, in fast-paced, upbeat vignettes, their pride in using the computers that run on Microsoft operating systems and software.

If the above quote from the New York Times story is accurate, then this sounds like a terrible reaction to Apple’s campaign. The brilliance of the “I’m a Mac” ads is that they’re not smug. The Mac never calls the PC a loser. He never claims that using a Mac is something to be proud of in its own right. He just points out something that’s easier to do on a Mac. Countering this by arguing that PC users are “cool” is effectively conceding the point that Macs work better.

As a personal gripe, I think much of the professed confusion of Macs and PCs with Mac and PC users is disingenuous. John Hodgman and Justin Long represent the computers, not their users. The lines “I’m a Mac”, “I’m a PC” are a subtle clue. In the ads, the PC is a bit of a buffoon. That’s not a commentary on PC users; it’s a commentary on the Windows-on-commodity-hardware product. Arguing that Apple has been insulting PC users, and not just dissing the product they currently use, is “lipstick on a pig”-style spin.

We’ll see whether my concerns about Microsoft’s new campaign are justified tonight.

Update 2008-09-19

A couple of new Microsoft ads are out, and I’m not impressed. They definitely play into the user/PC confusion I mention, and they do seem to concede the “Macs work better” angle. They are intrinsically smug, but the “using a PC is something to be proud of” message is mostly just subtext, so not as bad as I expected.

The message of these ads, as far as I can tell, is that a lot of people use PCs. I think getting the public to agree with that message is a much more attainable goal than getting them to like Microsoft. Great way to spend three hundred million dollars, guys.

[^1] As entertainment, much of the fun was spoiled for me by the condescending “we could be just like you, but we’re actually way better than that” subtext.