Wednesday, October 22, 2008

What is it?

By Johnathon Olsen

Earlier this year our favorite computer juggernaut Microsoft set off on what it hoped would be a successful ad campaign to put a stop to Apple's ever-growing popularity. Expectations were high on both ends, so much so that Microsoft shelled out a rumored 10 million dollars to Jerry Seinfeld for his participation and planned on dropping 300 million in total for the campaign. Murmurs spread across the land. Nerds everywhere day-dreamed of the all encompassing awesomeness that such an ad campaign would entail. Finally the day came. Silence. As reported by the British Telegraph "The first advert featuring Gates and Seinfeld was met by a collective scratching of heads as viewers struggled to fathom what the two men's oblique and unfunny discussion had to do with computers." In fact this ad and its followup were so poorly received that Microsoft apparently went to the next phase of the campaign, sans Seinfeld and Gates, ahead of schedule. As mentioned in the quote from The Telegraph the main complaint from people seemed to be that the ad had seemingly no correlation with the product. I however feel that this is a ridiculous claim and would like to show you why.

First off I would like the deal with the pesky Seinfeld issue. His presence in these ads has been held up as proof that the commercials have nothing to do with Microsoft. A big part of this is probably due to the fact that his T.V. show was always said to be about "nothing" and so people see this as some kind of continuation. This is obviously just lazy thinking though and seems to come from people who don't really like Seinfeld in the first place. The second complaint thrown his way is that he doesn't have anything to do with Microsoft. This too is silly. What does Jeff Goldblum have to do with Apple? or Jerry Seinfeld for that matter:

Celebrities have been used in advertising for a long time for two main reasons. The first is that most people in this world are unsure of themselves and don't really know what they like or want unless someone else tells them. The problem arises though of deciding just who to listen to. Because they have often seen these Celebrities, whether it be on T.V. hitting a ball around or on the silver screen living their oh so interesting lives, people feel as if they can trust a Michael Jordan type when deciding what kind of under garments to wear. The second reason that celebrities are often utilized in ads is that they are usually connected in the public conscious with certain ideas that the company hopes will then be connected with their product. So when Apple appropriates the images of Picasso, one of the richest painters ever, and John Lennon, one of four members of the most infamous rock band in the world, they are in fact doing this in hopes that people will think of them as somehow different than the masses. This works because things like art and peace, two ideas heavily associated with them, are still thought of in our society as somehow being on the fringe, even if their proponents are some of the most well known people in the world. Isn't that silly?

So why would Microsoft want to use Jerry Seinfeld right now? Using the first reason we can say that a lot of people know who he is. He was after all the star of an incredibly popular and long lasting T.V. show named after himself. Every week families would gather around and watch as Jerry shared a piece of his life with us, so why wouldn't we then also lend our ear when he felt like giving us a little tip on which consumer goods we should pick up? The real key though is what it is about Seinfeld's public persona that Microsoft would like you to associate with them. Jerry Seinfeld is know for one reason and one reason alone. People find him funny. There is no coincidence that after a few years of watching the humorous "I'm a Mac" commercials kid their way into the public's heart Microsoft picked an incredibly popular comic to head their campaign. So why is Seinfeld in the commercials? Because he is famous and funny.

Now that we have that settled we can move on to the still looming question of what the heck this thing has to do with Microsoft. As mentioned earlier a very common pattern in advertisements is to have a celebrity rub shoulders with one of the company's commodities. Now we can check off the the celebrity box, that we've already established, but this commodity thing still seems to really be stumping people. It's a commercial for a computer company but all I see is shoes. Oh no! The problem with this reading of the ad is that it completely overlooks the presence of Bill Gates, who only seemed to get mentioned in the negative responses of the ad when people wanted to point out his stiff acting. The truth is that we can pull our papers back out and be confident when we also put a check in the commodity box because Bill Gates is our commodity.

To help prove my point lets play a game. I want you to flip your sheet over and write down the first five words that you associate with Bill Gates. Okay? Go! .... Now lets go over your answers. If at least one of your words wasn't Microsoft chances are you have no idea who Bill Gates is in the first place. Bill Gates is synonymous with both Microsoft the company and Windows the operating system. They are forever connected in the minds of the public and so one can just as easily be swapped out for the other. When Bill Gates shows up on T.V. we know what it's about.

But Bill Gate's presence does more than that. The ad plays off some of the public's preconceptions of Gate's in a way that I think is once again a direct response to the "I'm a Mac" campaign. In the popular ads from Apple the heavy handed message remains time and time again that Macs are for fun and creative people while PCs are for conservative business types. If you are Microsoft you probably realize that it doesn't help that the man, who we already have established as being synonymous with the company, is a computer nerd with a bad haircut who also happens to be the 3rd richest man in the world. By playing off the irony of seeing Bill Gates at a discount shoe store in a shopping mall Microsoft seems to want to say that they're in on the joke too.

So after a bit of looking we can see that this ad, which so confounded the public, is really just a slight variation on an already established formula. By using a celebrity and another celebrity which doubles as a commodity Microsoft hopes to shift people's perceptions of the company by playing off the public's simplistic views of said celebrities.

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