Lipstick on a pig

September 12, 2008

Daniel Jalkut brings up some interesting points in his analysis of the new Microsoft ads. But I have to disagree with his fundamental assertion that the ad campaign is “genius.”

Far from it, in fact. For those who haven’t seen them yet, there are two spots out already. In the first, Bill Gates and Jerry Seinfeld go to a shoe store. In the second, the two live in some random family’s house. Neither ad appears to be actively marketing or selling anything. Jalkut counters this criticism by noting that the purpose is to build Microsoft’s image and brand, to “alter the long-term impression of the company that develops and markets the world’s leading desktop computer operating system.”

This would be fine, if it weren’t for the fact that Microsoft’s current perception is a direct result of its incompetently executed product line. The Zune continues to be a relative failure, seemingly everyone hates Vista, and its successor Windows 7 is, predictably, nowhere in sight. Releasing a lofty series of advertising spots with the goal of showing us some kind of kinder and gentler Microsoft will fall flat on its face without the product teeth to back it.

On the bright side, neither spot feels nor looks cheaply made. Bill Gates is better at acting than most people might expect. And the ads do have some funny moments. But the biggest problem isn’t the artistic quality of these clips. The issue is the deep disconnect going on between the “we’re cool” image that Microsoft is trying to push and the reality of what the company actually is.

Maybe this campaign is actually the signal of a Microsoft rebirth. That is, however, unlikely, especially given that Steve Ballmer is still the boss. Fundamental cultural shifts like this don’t usually happen without an executive shakeup, starting at the top. Some people are comparing these TV spots to Apple’s “Think Different” campaign. Yet they seem to conveniently forget that “Think Different” came onto the stage just as Gil Amelio was leaving it, among many other changes at the company’s core.

Until I see something similar happen at Microsoft, I don’t think this is much different than an artistically well-made Soviet government propaganda piece. And just like people found the same old regime hiding behind those, they will see that behind that pleasant, occasionally funny dialogue between Gates and Seinfeld still stands the same old Microsoft.

In the end, no matter how much lipstick you put on that pig, you’re still left with a pig.