Revenge of the Nerds: Microsoft's Ad is Better than Apple's

I’ll be the last one — Redfin has been busy with its company meeting last Friday–  to say I love Microsoft’s new “I’m a PC” ad.

Doesn’t It Remind of You That Discovery Channel Ad?
But maybe I’m the first who wonders if it was inspired by The Discovery Channel’s “The World is Just Awesome” ad, which came out just as Microsoft hired Crispin to take on Apple?

Both jump around the world, posing wild animals alongside innovative, nerdy free-spirits, who don’t seem to mind chanting a corporate mantra.

The Ad Is Un-One-Uppable
As soon as I heard that Microsoft was taking on Apple: I thought, 1. “Good! About time!” and 2. “They’ve started a fight they can’t win. Apple will one-up them.” But the ad it turns out is un-one-uppable. (It must have been designed to be that way).

Who wants to go after people saving polar bears, teaching African children, converting cow pies into car fuel? In fact, the ad sort of kills for me the whole Apple campaign, which now seems so precious, insufferable, narrow, white and male. As Crispin folks explained to Danielle Sacks when they first took the Microsoft account, “To try to be cool is not to be cool.” Apple really tries to be cool.

Why Did It Take Us So Long to See That Apple is Kind of Mean?
Why did it take us so long to see that? I remember being shocked on learning years ago that the Apple “I’m a PC” ad couldn’t run in Japan, because consumers there don’t like snarky comparisons; I hadn’t realized until then that the luminescent, post-modern ads were such a dirty shiv to the gut.

And it wasn’t just me: friends who still love unicorn stickers and long walks on the beach loved watching the PC nerd (whom Slate’s Seth Stevenson always maintained was more likable than Apple’s hipster) getting humiliated in ever-more elaborate ways.

Apple is the Marketing Juggernaut, Microsoft is the Software Engineering Company
And why did it take so long for Microsoft to respond? We think of Apple as a products company, and Microsoft as a business behemoth, but Apple is the company that floods the airwaves with ads while Microsoft is mostly a company of software engineers. Every time I’m about to buy an Airbook, I wonder how much of its cost is its carefully constructed image.

That’s why I love it that Bill Gates is cast as the anti-Steve Jobs, wearing dorky clothes and glasses, even though he’s the one who’s really trying to save the world.

So what do you think?  Is “I’m a PC” a take off on the “World is Just Awesome?”Is Microsoft the real product company, while Apple is the marketing juggernaut? And what percentage of a Mac’s price is marketing vs. say, of a Windows Dell? I’ll go with 40% and 20%.

Discussion

  • http://www.redfin.com Sasha Aickin

    I feel like “I’m a PC” isn’t so much a take off on “The World Is Just Awesome” as it is a take off of “I Am Tiger Woods”. A bunch of seemingly unconnected people all tell you that they are part of the brand by asserting that the brand *is* their identity.

    I’ve probably got an unfair anti-Microsoft bias, but “The World Is Just Awesome” works so much more for me. A friend forwarded it to me a few months ago, and we spent the next several weeks singing the line “I love a-rach-a-nids”. It’s infectious and at a base level I want to be one of those people studying magma, dead Egyptian kings, or giant squids. I want to be someone who thinks the world is awesome.

    “I’m a PC”, on the other hand, feels too diluted. While you saw it as highlighting awesome/charitable uses of Windows PCs, I saw it as all over the map. The usage of celebrities is particularly strange: it seems to be saying that some people use PCs to make the world better and some people use PCs and happen to be famous, and either of those are good enough reasons for why you should use a PC.

    Maybe you use a PC because you care about the environment; maybe you use a PC and you have a beard. Whatever.

    In the end, “I’m a PC” seems more like the standard “everybody else is doing this so it must be awesome” message that ads give us again and again. It’s certainly better than the Seinfeld ads, and I think they’re better than I first gave them credit for, but it still seems like not much of a game changer to me.

  • http://blog.redfin.com Glenn Kelman

    I wasn’t saying that the Microsoft ads were as good as The Discovery Channel ad, which is truly wonderful.

    And of course, I don’t want to be someone who thinks the world is awesome. I think it is. Especially when compared with the nearly colorless, lifeless, near-absolute zero remainder of the universe.

    But I do think the point of the Microsoft ad was not that everyone is doing it, if by everyone you mean the usual faceless mass of people, but to emphasize the diversity of people using PCs and the wonderful ways in which they use them. The opening premise is to challenge the Apple stereotype, and then to show people different than the stereotype.

    And I didn’t even realize there were celebrities in the ad. Who? Where?

  • http://www.zims.com Mark

    I’m undecided on whether this campaign will be effective or not. On the one hand I agree with you that the ads do a good job of combatting Apple’s message that all PC users are bland office clerks, on the other watching them immediately brings Apple to mind and makes Microsoft look like it’s playing follow the leader. Time will tell but it’s certainly a giant step forward from the “People ready” and “Wow” campaigns it replaces.

    On Dell versus Apple for marketing expenditures don’t have pure marketing numbers but taking SG&A as a proxy Apple and Dell spend almost identically relative to their sizes.

    Apple annual revenue to September 29-07 ~$24B, SG&A ~$3B or roughly 12%. Dell annual revenue to February 02-08 ~$61B, SG&A ~$7.5B or roughly 12%.

    You might find this paper on a related subject interesting. The authours explore whether there is a co-relation (other than from revenue growth) between advertising spend and market cap for PC makers including Dell and Apple. PDF at http://bit.ly/1sLMux

  • http://blog.redfin.com/blog/author/glenn%20kelman Glenn Kelman

    Mark, this is one of the greatest comments ever. Why didn’t I look at Apple and Dell’s P&L?

  • http://www.redfin.com Sasha Aickin

    > And I didn’t even realize there were celebrities in the ad. Who? Where?

    NBA star Tony Parker.
    Desperate Housewives star (and Parker’s wife) Eva Longoria.
    Rapper/producer Pharrell Williams.
    Writer/self-help dude Deepak Chopra.
    Bill Gates.

    There may be more whom I don’t recognize. With Parker and Longoria particularly, it felt odd, since it’s not like Microsoft’s products are at all critical to their success. No one believes that Parker got his three championship rings (the ones he mentions in the ad) using Excel. Longoria, for her part, was most probably not using the new Vista featureset to improve her portrayal of Gabi on DH.

    With respect to Pharell, he at least does use computers in his work, although it’s mildly shocking that he never works at studios that have Mac setups, as those are the standard in audio and visual creative firms. (Witness the fact that a few digital muckrakers found that several of the stills for this campaign had been produced on Macs.)

    Also, and this is very personal sidenote, but I find I have an almost allergic reaction to Deepak Chopra. His “not-human-thinking-but-human-being” bit just trips my BS detector immediately, and it sours me on what is otherwise a good ad.

    So where does this leave me on the campaign? Well, if the ad’s intent was, as you say, to show the wonderful ways people use PCs, that’s a great story for Microsoft to tell. But that’s not the story they are telling, as there were far too many people whose identity in the ad has nothing to do with being helped by Microsoft’s products: “I wear jeans”, “I have a beard”, “I sell fish”, the diver, NBA champ, TV star, glasses wearer. Instead, I still claim that Microsoft is emphasizing the many different (and different types) of *people* who use Windows.

    In the end, I think Microsoft is deliberately misunderstanding the “I’m a PC” metaphor from the Apple ads and accusing the Apple ads as claiming that it’s PC *users* who are like Hodgeman’s character, not PCs themselves. When I think of it that way, I see your point about meanness, and this becomes a much smarter campaign.

  • http://buzzbuilderz.com Bill Lublin

    Glen; Here I see the disadvantage of using Tivo for watching television – If I didn’t read your blog I owuld have missed both of these interesting commercials.

    That being said I think that your point is well made – by taking the high road in their commercial and pointing out the diversity of users and (potentially) uses of PCs , Apple is quietly pushed to a secondary position in a non-snarky fashion, as PC users are celebrated for all of the things they do (with or without their Cs)

    BTW as a complete disclaimer I am both a PC & a Mac user – in my case a mixed marraige that is sort of fun ;-)

  • Alex Mather

    The iPod’s absolute domination of the portable audio player market has very little to do with marketing. It’s an amazing product that keeps getting better. Anyone who has used OSX and Windows will have a preference that is based on experience not TV commercials.

    Apple has stepped up it’s ad campaign big time over the past few years but that’s because they’re trying to reach the laggards now. (Everyone else already has an iPod.)

    By the way Glen, if an underdog company with better products is being mean by comparing itself favorably to it’s bigger but crappier competition then Redfin is a big mean bully, no?

  • http://blog.redfin.com/blog/author/glenn%20kelman Glenn Kelman

    Touche Alex. But maybe there’s a difference between saying your product is better and saying that the people who use your product are better, or cooler. Something about Apple’s ad strikes me as just beating up on nerds mercilessly. I liked it that Microsoft has reclaimed nerd.

    Bill: LONG LIVE TIVO!!!

  • http://colorado.neighborcity.com/Aurora/ Real Estate Raj

    Gotta hand it to them. They’ve managed to make something that doesn’t look bad. Now if I could just get vista to recognize my printer…

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  • http://www.goodchemistry.com Alex Hillinger

    I’ve got to say Glenn, you’ve made a good point. However, I still must disagree with you.

    Microsoft’s campaign is, at its core, a defensive move to stop the bloodletting that Apple’s been exacting upon it with its Mac ads for what, 2 years now?

    The Microsoft ads are an attempt at repositioning Apple’s campaign as being both mean-spirited towards the squillions of PC users out there who have blithely allowed themselves to be treated this way, and simultaneously to reposition Microsoft as a more fun, whacky, irreverent kind of company.

    On the first point, which is more or less your argument, I think they’ve done okay, a B-.

    On the second point, however, they get an F. The ads are simply not true to their brand. It’s lipstick on a pig (sorry Sarah). If, in three years time, Microsoft has successfully rebranded itself as a fun, whacky, irreverent, non-corporate hairball of a company, I’ll gladly eat my words. But you know this is just the latest salvo in an attempt by MS to be seen as being in-touch with consumers and, you know, hip in a nerdy sorta way. Not buying it.

    Which brings me to my last point. Yes, Apple is the marketing juggernaut and Microsoft is the engineering company. But say what you want about Apple flooding the airwaves and billboards with ads, their best marketing is saved for the products themselves. Better design. Better functionality. Better usability. Better integration of third-party apps (App Store anyone?)

    If Microsoft really wants to gain ground on Apple, they’ll stop trying to beat them at their own game and spend some time figuring out what they actually can do better. Fixing Vista would be a good start.

  • http://blog.redfin.com Glenn Kelman

    Alex, I agree that Apple has better product design than… any other company on the planet. The tendency to overengineer something can still come from engineers…

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  • Tina

    You said “Airbook,” therefore, you deserve to be PC. It’s a MacBook Air, moron.

  • La Gente del Basura

    “If Microsoft really wants to gain ground on Apple, they’ll stop trying to beat them at their own game and spend some time figuring out what they actually can do better. Fixing Vista would be a good start.”

    That’s all that needs to be said. Microsoft hates it when anyone else has success as they seem to believe they are entitled to it all. They do not play fair, and innovation is a completely foreign concept to them.

    Microsoft’s ads are a feel-good message to the lowest common denominator with an anti-Apple bias or simply is unwilling to look at another product objectively rather than seeing it as a culture to which they are unwelcome or don’t understand. While it has its own culture, you don’t have to be part of it to actually use the produce.