Vista's image problem personified

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It might not have even been a story meriting any extent of coverage -- Microsoft's hiring yesterday of comedian Jerry Seinfeld as its new commercial spokesperson -- had it not been for the fact that Microsoft has an image problem. That problem is due in large part to Windows Vista, and the public perception of it as somewhat less than the savior of modern computing that it was originally promoted to be in the early months of 2007.

As was widely reported yesterday, Microsoft is reportedly investing $300 million in a new advertising campaign starring comedian Jerry Seinfeld, and designed by the firm responsible for Burger King's popular, yet disturbing "King" ads. You may recall, the ones where ordinary people find themselves conversing with a plastic, motionless, mute Burger King statue that they find in their midst for no apparent reason.

Crispin Porter + Bogusky's new ad campaign for Microsoft will reportedly pair Seinfeld (although Hollywood sources are reporting that Will Farrell and Chris Rock were also considered) with the always hilarious Bill Gates, whom we hope will not appear as plastic or immobile. The campaign is being called "Windows, Not Walls;" and for some reason, visions of Rowan & Martin's famous "joke wall" immediately come to mind.

It is the very fact that there will be a pairing at all for comedy purposes that will ensure this campaign will be compared for message, effectiveness,, cinematography, wardrobe...with the "I'm a Mac/I'm a PC" campaign mounted by Apple. Regardless of whether that campaign has the "reach-to-conversion" ratio of other campaigns for cars or home appliances or even computers, Apple's will most likely be viewed as among the most successful advertising productions in the history of the medium.

Not that Seinfeld's previous work in advertising has been all that bad. Just last year, he was a spokesperson for HP in its continuing "The Computer is Personal Again" campaign, which has included Mark Cuban, Pharell, Vera Wang, Shaun White, and Serena Williams, among others. That series of ads has coincided with an increase in notebook sales that amounts to 26% worldwide.

Ask yourself, when you saw this HP ad featuring Jerry Seinfeld last year for the first time, whether you thought, "Gee, HP Presarios must not be such sucky laptops after all?"

But we don't recall anyone at that time ever suggesting that Seinfeld's hiring by HP in 2007 (which, by the way, did feature Vista) was ever done as a rescue mission to repair HP's fallen image. Companies hire commercial spokespersons all the time, especially good ones like Seinfeld. Only in Microsoft's case could anyone have jumped to the conclusion that the hiring of a reputable celebrity was done as part of a rescue operation.

And whose fault is that? In July, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer mentioned an ad campaign would soon be released that would "address any lingering doubts our customers may have about Windows Vista." This statement could have been referring to Microsoft's now-infamous Mojave experiment, where users were exposed to a new Windows OS that was actually just Vista; since the videos were revealed shortly after Ballmer made the statement. Or it could be referring to the upcoming Seinfeld campaign, which is expected to premiere on September 4th.

As of today, we're still awaiting Microsoft's comment on whether the upcoming ads are, in fact, a continuation of Mojave, or something new.

Senior Vice President Carmi Levy of AR Communications told BetaNews, "I think Microsoft has been quite up-front about the gap between the public's perception of Vista's capabilities and Vista's actual capabilities. The company earlier this summer admitted it needed to invest more resources into addressing lingering public perceptions that Vista is a dog of a product that has failed to live up to its potential. Signing Jerry Seinfeld up as a spokesperson is an early step along this road."

As we all know, the right commercial spokesperson can spell phenomenal success for both a product and its manufacturer.

That attempt at transparency, however, may actually contribute to the problem, because Ballmer's statements carried with them a much stronger message. Microsoft is making a $300 million advertising expenditure simply to clean up the public's opinion of Vista. Whatever truths there are about the quality of the operating system, Microsoft has allowed the perception problem to get so bad that even the operating system's celebrity representatives have become newsworthy.

The truth about Windows Vista, when we get down to brass tacks, is that it isn't all that different from the last two major revisions of Windows. It is far from a thing of beauty, nor is it completely workable, even after SP1. But it is also a far cry from Windows Me, perhaps Microsoft's single worst rendition of the OS. In the end, it's no worse on its worst days than Windows XP on its worst.

But XP was never under such an intense spotlight during its life cycle (which was supposed to have already ended). Vista's failures give even its most expert users the impression of XP as some oasis of efficiency and manageability. Part of the reason for that is simply because Vista hasn't met expectations. But the other part is because statements like Ballmer's have only helped magnify the problem. As a result, any move Microsoft may make to address Vista's image, whether it hires Seinfeld or Chris Rock or Walter Cronkite, may be taken as a validation that a more critical problem exists, one which cuts into the core of its design.

And all Apple has to do is post a follow-up saying, "See? Told you."

A retired Madison Avenue ad executive told one of us 30 years ago, as advice for how to write for the public, that once you plant a seed of doubt in the reader's mind as to whether the efficacy of something you yourself are doing (case in point, making stupid grammatical errors), the reader will inevitably come to believe it.

Last year, Vista's product manager Nick White admitted to BetaNews that the main problem with the OS was the lack of a real marketing push. We saw the beginnings of the "Open up your digital life" campaign, but it did little to reverse the bad press Vista had already received.

As Levy continued, this latest move to unite the comedy team of Seinfeld and Gates "isn't so much a knee-jerk reaction to this situation than it is a concerted effort by Microsoft to shed its image as a stodgy marketer. Apple has its rock star CEO Steve Jobs who turns every major announcement into a cultural event. Microsoft has never had similar DNA, but that doesn't mean it can't take a stab at being a little cooler than it has been in the past."

As some have suggested, Microsoft might do better to spend its $300 million in an effort to simply improve, or correct, Vista. The problem is, Microsoft has already tried that approach: concentrating on improving the product, in the face of mounting criticisms -- some real, some contrived. It's the approach Sen. John Kerry took in 2004 when he was attacked for a number of made-up reasons, and we all know what happened to him.

One is left wondering: Has Microsoft successfully been "swift-boated?"

Levy suggests "Microsoft isn't in crisis mode just yet. But the writing is on the wall for both of its major cash cow franchises, Windows and Office. The shift toward the Web is putting pressure on Microsoft to address market performance shortcomings more aggressively. I would expect more high profile marketing announcements along the lines of the Jerry Seinfeld deal in the months to come, as Microsoft can no longer afford to trail the industry in terms of the punching power of its messaging."

Regardless of any shortcomings Vista may have -- and there definitely are some -- had the public perception of the operating system in the beginning of its life cycle not been allowed to slip into negative territory, the very subject of Seinfeld's hiring would not have merited so much attention. As an exercise, extract Microsoft from this argument for a moment and substitute Dell -- another company with a negative perception problem. Pair Jerry Seinfeld with Michael Dell. Such an appointment would have merited maybe a blurb running along the crawler of MSNBC. And that would've been it.

When you plant a seed of doubt about yourself or your own work in someone else's mind, you've given it the fertilizer it needs to grow and flourish. On day one of the Seinfeld campaign, he'll already be facing an uphill battle. He'll be expected to "rebut" Apple. And though he may be a genius in the art, comedy may not be the real attitude adjustment that Microsoft needs now.

Here's a clip from what British viewers still consider one of the most memorable celebrity-spearheaded campaigns of the 1980s. Compaq, you may recall, never had an image problem, and perhaps John Cleese was one reason why.

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