Watching Microsoft advertisements these days has become a strangely compelling pastime for me. It’s somewhere between watching MXC and a slow-motion trainwreck of oddly-imaginable proportions. As a result, I’ve written a post here that begins with some analysis of their current ads and advertising strategies, and ends with an open letter to Microsoft. Scroll down if you’re already well-versed in Microsoft’s advertising sins.
Let’s start by flashing back to the Microsoft Surface ads from late 2012.
When this was playing in regular rotation on Hulu Plus, I saw it every ten to twenty minutes for a couple of weeks. In case you don’t feel like watching it, the basic premise is this: a young professional on the go (he’s working outdoors, you see) pulls his Surface out of his bag. Then, looking surprised, also pulls out the cover, which (gasp!) doubles as a keyboard, and attaches with an audible “click.” Other people being to notice. Other people start doing the same thing. Suddenly a STOMP-style symphony of clicking erupts! People are dancing and making music with their Surfaces! Schoolgirls! Construction workers! Old people! Inspirational music soars! Cut back to our young professional hero, looking vaguely smug, and then to a black screen with one word: Surface.
So what does this commercial do for us, the consumer? It lets us know that it’s a touchscreen device; it’s got a magnetic, detachable cover that doubles as a keyboard; it has a little flap at the back that pops out so you can prop it up on a level surface. Subliminally I suppose it’s meant to let us know that it’s “for everyone,” and that it’s fun(!) and exciting(!).
It’s Microsoft’s take on the iPod dance commercials: it tells us essentially nothing about the product, but we know it’s fun and cool.
The problem is that the Surface isn’t an iPod. An iPod is a one-function device. The Surface is a computer — or at least it’s supposed to be.
Anyway, as mediocre as this series of ads was, it wasn’t godawful. It was uninformative, and didn’t play to the strengths of the product — it’s a pretty powerful little device, which you can’t tell from the ad, and really nobody bought the idea that a Microsoft product could be fun and for everyone — but it wasn’t the worst. Microsoft should have quit while they were ahead. Instead, they decided to double-down.
Enter the “scroogled” ad campaigns.
“Can you spot what Google goes through in this Gmail? It’s easy: they go through everything!”
Reading more like a Republican scaremongering ad in an election year than an ad for a software-slash-computer company, from the first wave of these ads they set Microsoft’s competitors in their sights. With obviously no idea where the line between effective marketing and parody was, they created absurd conversations between absurd personages, trying to highlight all the negative aspects of their competitors products.
Smarmy people talking down to stupid people:
Angry, defensive people talking to well-meaning but obviously mistaken people:
And a range of products, too: Google, Apple, and Samsung as well.
Here’s two edited together showing the um, “relative merits” of the Galaxy Tab 3 10.1 and the Surface:
Here’s the TL;DR:
Ad 1: The Surface has a mini-HDMI and full-size USB port. The Tab 3 10.1 only has a mini-USB, and *gasp!* you use that for charging, too. And you’ll need to buy adapters! Heavens, no!
Ad 2: The Surface has multiple users, and terrifying spyware so you can monitor –all the other users–your children on your shared tablet. The Tab 3 10.1 only has one user account.
And here’s one going after what can only be described as a Mark-I Chromebook:
These ads come off as variously smarmy, angry, jealous, haughty, or just generally obnoxious. They mis- or under-represent their competitors’ products, compare oddly-specific features, or sound like that embittered uncle nobody wants to invite to Thanksgiving dinner because he talks endlessly about how “the gays are ruining America” and “the liberal media agenda.”
Here’s a hot tip: if you’re going to have someone talk about how much your competitor’s products suck, why don’t you pick someone who isn’t the embodiment of comedically low evaluations.
I can’t really enumerate all the things wrong with the Scroogled campaign, because it would be a very, very long post. But I’ll try:
One: Microsoft doesn’t seem to know what a tablet is actually for. Why would you want to connect a tablet to a TV? A tablet is what you either use to watch TV in an unconventional place — your bed, the back of a car, sitting on the toilet (don’t judge) — or something you use while watching a TV. If you’re going to stream things to your TV, you buy a Roku box or an Apple TV box and you use that. And if you are going to hook up your Surface to a TV, in defiance of god and logic, you still need an adapter because TVs don’t use mini-HDMI. Also: people don’t use peripherals with their tablets, Microsoft. That’s why they don’t make them with peripherals. They use ubiquitous wi-fi and near-field communication to send things places without cables.
Two: Microsoft doesn’t seem to realize that they’ve made something both much better and much worse than a tablet. It’s got the power of a desktop, but with a screen that’s on the small side for desktop use and only enough peripheral plugs for a single mouse (and that weird click-on keyboard, I guess). It does all the things a tablet should do, but if you try to do the better things it’s capable of, its form factor is going to piss you off. Which brings us to
Three: Microsoft doesn’t seem to know who a tablet is actually for. It’s trying to sell a media center to people who want something to read facebook on and play candy crush saga. It’s trying to sell a desktop in the shape of a tablet to people who want an e-reader. It’s trying to sell a pricey powerful tablet-shaped computer to people who want an appliance.
Here’s the thing: I like the Surface. I got a chance to play with one and it even made the absurdity that is Windows 8 seem like a good idea (well, at least it made me understand what they were trying to do). But these ads make me hate you, Microsoft. Really, really, really hate you. They make you awful.
So here’s my open letter to Microsoft, in the hopes that someone who works for them will wander by here, by some miracle. From little old me to you.
Get a new ad company.
I know it might be hard, you guys have been through a lot together. But this relationship isn’t good for you. You’re better than this. Do it, and move on.
Then start selling Surfaces to the people who want computers. Stop comparing them to straw-man versions of your competitors’ products. Stop comparing them with “easy-to-use” walled-garden-ecosystem tablets. Stop trying to make them appeal to people who just want something to play sudoku on.
Compare them with business machines. Show how they work well in offices. Show how they’re capable of doing useful, interesting things that people who use computers actually want. Show that they can run tax software and work as points of sale. Show that you can do your work on them at your desk and then take them to the boardroom to do more than dance with them. Show that you can do your work on them during the day and that your kids can do their homework on them when they get home. They’re mobile computers; stop selling them as appliances.
Then show them that, at the end of the day, when the day’s work is done, the business is complete, and the homework is finished, that then you can sit with it in your lap and watch the latest episode of Game of Thrones or Agents of SHIELD. When the work is done.
That’s what it’s good for. That’s why it’s a great product. But until you realize that, you’re going to continue to try to get yourself out of an ever-deeper hole with only a shovel.
Hint: you can’t dig up.