Does Microsoft Have An Image Problem? (Part 1)

8/19/2013 2:39:50 PM

We look into the gap between how Microsoft wants you to think of itf and how people actually do…

What do you think of when you think of Microsoft? Maybe you think about how expensive its operating systems and office software can be. Maybe you feel like it's a safe, dependable company that's suitable for people who don't know much about computers. Maybe you feel some frustration over products like Windows 8 or Microsoft Word. Chances are, though, whether you use and like Microsoft products, use and resent Microsoft products or avoid Microsoft at all costs, you won't think of it as a cool company.

 There's something about Microsoft that never feels youthful or exciting. Microsoft isn't the cool option, whether you're buying a computer or a smartphone. However, that's not for lack of trying on Microsoft's part. Over the last few years, it's tried really hard to create branding and advertising that promotes its products as fun and desirable. For some reason, it just doesn't seem to stick. Let's take a look at some of the ads...

The Current Campaign

The new Windows 8 TV adverts are all bright colors, jaunty music and exuberant claims. “The best laptop is now a tablet,” they claim. “The best tablet is now a PC.” New Dell PCs that come with detachable keyboards dance across the screen while music soars and the new Windows logo pops up on screen. The new version of Windows will, according to another advert, bring about “a new era of PCs.” Most of the adverts don't feature any actual people or real settings, just computers jigging about in front of solid color backgrounds. They’re about making Windows PCs look exciting and desirable.

Windows 8

Windows 8

Meanwhile, the current Windows Phone 8 adverts feature celebrities like James Cordon and Holly Willoughby talking about how great it is that they can customize their Windows phone to meet their needs. The spokespeople feel focus-grouped, chosen because of their popularity and relevance to mainstream culture as well as their general inoffensiveness. They're about as family friendly as it gets.

There's a third facet to the current Microsoft ad offensive, though, and it involves pitting Microsoft products against their competitors. In one advert, guests at a wedding get into a massive brawl after arguing about whether Android or Apple phones are better, while the waiters film the carnage with their Windows-running Nokia Lumias and speculate on why tech fanboys like to argue. In another, entitled ‘Less talking, more doing’, Apple's Siri is shown being unable to carry out various tasks, while a Microsoft tablet completes them silently, without complaint.

Mac Versus PC

Looking at all these adverts in conjunction, it seems Microsoft wants to establish Windows PCs (and other devices) as being just as attractive as the alternatives, but also somehow more comfortable. You don't need to fight about Windows, Microsoft says, you just use it and get on with it. It's almost a smart idea, claiming to be quietly competent while all your rivals shout and scream about their qualities, but there's also a hint of sour grapes to these commercials, which, in fairness, is probably left over from a fight Microsoft didn't start.

Apple's computer and Windows PCs

Apple's computer and Windows PCs

Between 2006 and 2009, Apple made 66 TV adverts in its ‘Get a Mac’ series. Each of these starred John Hodgman as a stuffy old PC and Justin Long as a hip young Mac. The two personified computers would bicker about their relative merits, with the Mac, of course, always coming out on top. Annoying as those ads could be, they were undeniably effective, pushing Apple's computers as cool and creative, unlike Windows PCs, which were apparently only good for doing boring things like making spreadsheets.

Setting aside the obvious flaws in this argument – like the occasional necessity of doing boring things like ‘work’ on a computer and the fact that there have always been more games available for PCs than Mac computers – it seemed like Apple was tapping into a perception of Microsoft that many customers already had. And rather than play to its strengths, Microsoft has spent the last few years trying to argue that it isn't as boring as everyone thinks with little success.

Older Microsoft Adverts

The Windows 7 adverts are a prime example of how Microsoft tends to overreach when trying to assert its coolness. Remember all those “Windows 7 was my idea” ads? They stole Apple's line (“I'm a PC”) and tried to turn it around by featuring normal-looking people claiming to have come up with the idea for bits of Windows 7 and told Microsoft about it. The ads packed in two seemingly killer ideas: that being a PC might be a cool thing to be and that Microsoft listened to its customers and designed an operating system specifically for their needs. It's actually not a terrible campaign, but it’s nonsense. We know none of these people had anything to do with the development of the new Windows operating system; it was just a gimmick.

Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 8

Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 8

At least it seemed to fit the Microsoft brand, though. In 2009, advertising agency Bradley & Montgomery created an advert for Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 8. Which attracted so many complaints, it had to be removed. Directed by Police Academy’s Bobcat Goldthwait, the bizarre ad showed a woman vomiting after borrowing her partner’s laptop and finding disturbing pornography in his browser history. Actor Dean Cain then appeared to tell viewers that if they used Internet Explorer 8’5 private browsing feature, they could avoid OMGIGI (‘Oh my God, I'm going to puke’) moments.

It’s so awkward it feels like a spoof, but it genuinely was created for Microsoft, supposedly to appeal to the kind of people who find gross-out comedy hilarious. Perhaps wisely, it was only ever intended to be viewed online, not on TV, but due to the overwhelmingly negative reaction to the ad, Microsoft took it off its website entirely (although you can still find it on YouTube, if you want to).

And Even Older Ones

The vomit ad is undoubtedly Microsoft marketing’s biggest misstep, but the more you dig into the company’s advertising history, the more monstrosities you uncover. Who could forget the Windows vista ‘Wow’ adverts, which featured grammatically questionable sentences like “Turn on the Wow”, “The Wow starts now” and “Show us your Wow”?

A weird series of adverts starring Bill Gates and Jerry Seinfeld from 2008 seemed to acknowledge that the company was out of touch with its customers but didn’t do anything to address the problem. An advert for Windows XP saw Windows users taking flight while other Windows users filmed or photographed them, to the now Incredibly dated strains of Madonna's ‘Ray of Light’.

One less embarrassing but still kind of baffling ad for Windows 2000 featured a tractor being driven into the side of a barn, blaring hip hop as it went; and way, way back in 1986. an advert for Windows 1.0 featured Steve Ballmer shouting at potential customers and asking them to guess how much the new operating system would cost: "All these features and Reversi for just how much did you guess? $500? $1,000? Even more? No, it's just $99!" It’s pretty terrifying.

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