Finally, we learn what the Windows ad campaign was about

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The third installment of Microsoft's $300 million ad campaign finally grabbed the "I'm a PC" invective and wore it like a crown. Yes, I am a dork, I wear glasses, but I am also an athlete, scientist, teacher, artist, and everything in-between.

Tim Conneally: I'm a PC indeed.

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Microsoft's latest shift in advertising technique, whether it was actually planned this way or whether it was forced upon the company, is no non sequitur. Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Gates were the warm-up act that came out before the show to engage the crowd and get them ready for the headliner. Microsoft opened its "feel good" campaign with a puzzling comedic approach before throwing open the curtains on a strong emotional play.

But suggesting that a direct change will come as a result of an ad campaign is short-sighted. Further, likening Apple's rise in popularity to an advertising campaign and nothing else, is just false. Time has shown that the biggest seller of Macs is the iPod. It's a hard-hitting peripheral with the power to sell other goods. Call it "reverse attach rate"...like when a piece of killer software sells a system. Witness: Two weeks ago, I bought a PlayStation 3 strictly because it was the only system with Disgaea: Absence of Justice. Or, on a larger scale, look at the way Japanese consumers are gravitating toward the Xbox 360 in large part because of two new role-playing games (the even larger part, it could be argued is the console's new price point).

I was left slightly aghast this morning at quotes by ad executive Kathy Sharpe of Sharpe Partners with whom CNET's Ina Fried spoke on this subject. Sharpe says "Somehow the Mac always wins, but they do so charmingly, it's just a very well done campaign," along with, "Apple is just smarter at that sort of thing." I would beg to differ.

First of all, what has Apple actually "won?" I don't intend to vilify the mighty fruit, but Apple's ad campaign does not sell Macs to any significant (or "winning") degree, nor does either campaign address iPhone versus Windows Mobile device penetration (a battleground with far more potential for upset). Instead, its ads are what make Mac users feel special. The term "cult of personality" often comes to mind when thinking of Apple in the eyes of its users. Those ads pat Mac users on the back and tell them that they are cool because of their choice of OS. The product defines the audience.

Microsoft has now taken the exact opposite approach, saying, "Here are the people, they make PC what it is," and not, "Here is the PC and here's what it makes you," like Apple has done.


Bill Gates does make an appearance in this latest phase of the Microsoft ad campaign, along with actress Eva Longoria. But gone are the fake leather shoes, the underwear jokes, and the "moist, chewy goodness."

Scott Fulton: First of all, the new phase of the Windows marketing campaign is what the first phase should have been to begin with. It's a way to draw new boundaries around the definition of the product, and make it more personal. The Seinfeld phase of the campaign was an ad about nothing. This is an ad about something, and something real.

I'll be the first to say it: The way you turn around a negative impression that's been pinned to you by your competitor, is to wear it with pride. It's how Hardee's/Carl's Jr. launched its comeback in fast food, first by literally admitting that its food "sucked," and that it was taking bold steps to change it. It's how Jimmy Carter wore the buck-toothed, backwoods peanut farmer moniker to victory in 1976, and it's how Arnold Schwarzenegger captured a second term as California's governor. It's how Lipton powdered chicken noodle soup mix sales suddenly soured a half-century ago, after pitchman Arthur Godfrey challenged customers to see if there was actually any chicken in it, and if they found some, if they could mail it to him. It's how Coke Classic secured a bigger chunk of market share than it had before, after the New Coke debacle.

The ongoing Apple campaign, which the latest phase of the Microsoft campaign openly mocks, succeeded in defining its competitor in exactly the box Apple wanted to paint it in. In terms of actually converting viewers into Macintosh customers, it may actually be nowhere near as successful as the everyday, forgettable automobile product launch ad, but it's as successful as Apple needs it to be.

It successfully sustains the old Steve Jobs vs. Bill Gates debate long after the principal distinctions between their two products have pretty much faded, or completely died out. The war about the underlying technology, sparked by the great 80386 vs. 68000 debates of the 1980s, is an historical remnant. Macs run on Intel Core 2 Duo chips now, and a great many of them run Windows software by virtue of Boot Camp or a low-cost virtualization option. Indeed, there's Mac software that's still somewhat better and nicer than anything that you'll see on Windows today, but the differences have become so aesthetic, so esoteric, that any debate over the weight of those differences has become boring.

Thankfully, that's not what the Apple campaign has been about. It simply plants the idea in viewers' minds that the Mac is as cool as that guy who used to play the high school kid on "Ed," and that the PC is that thing that runs Vista that runs stodgy software and gets on people's nerves.

That's the stereotype that Microsoft has decided, in this second phase of the campaign, to wear with pride. And for once, I appreciate what they're doing with this. It's a good attempt to wear the badge proudly, to be a little more self-deprecating, less monolithic...less Microsoft.

The problem is, I'm not a PC.

Granted, this is the badge that Microsoft must wear if it's to pull of this phase of the campaign. But perhaps you've checked the state of the market yourself, so you already know this: The "personal computer" is evolving, mutating, transforming into a very different type of connectivity device. It's not so much a box with Windows on its hard drive anymore; the computer, to borrow a concept from a much greater comedian than Jerry Seinfeld, is simply becoming the temporary place for your stuff.

Specifically, your "stuff" is your data and your productivity. It's becoming transferrable, from your home machine to your laptop to your hip pocket, but it's the same work and the same data. The software is the medium; the "PC" is just one kind of a box that can house it for the time being, like a waypoint rather than an anchor. Check out what's happening in the field of Windows Mobile, where HTC and Motorola and Samsung are all capable of making it look and feel the way they need it to for their own devices. And look at HP, which has started asking, why can't we do the same for notebooks and desktops? Before too long, not even the PC will be the "PC."

So the next trick for Microsoft will be to wear the "PC" moniker proudly, for a little while -- just long enough to answer Apple, at long last. But then it has to cast it aside, to make way for the reality of the modern market. The "PC" doesn't matter anymore -- not for most people -- any more than the refrigerator matters more than the milk and the cheese and the eggs you keep inside of it.

If Microsoft starts at some point soon defining the computer the way we, like the people in its ads, use the computer -- by what it does, not what it is -- then finally, Microsoft will have returned Apple's volley, and the ball will be in its court.

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