Meanwhile, the world is looking on with quiet bemusement on Microsoft’s Seinfeld advertisements.
Most advertising falls into two categories. Either I want to tell the world something it doesn’t don't know yet, or I just want to associate my brand with some kind of memorable, positive image and hope that next time people walk into a store they think “Ooh, I couldn’t half do with a Coke”.
For a company like Microsoft with no new product to announce, the second path would seem to be the way to go. But Microsoft is not like any other company, at least not like any that feels the need to advertise. Tomorrow, nine out of ten computer users will sit down in front of a Microsoft product. To most of those people Windows is the computer, IE is the web, and if the years I spent doing desktop support is still a good reflection of the real world, that metal and plastic box with the on-off switch on it is the “hard drive”1.
Any advertising Microsoft does has to compete with their own crushing ubiquity. Any positive image they associate with their brand during the evening news is going to be a tiny blip compared to the six hours that same viewer will spend using Word on XP the next day. That amount of familiarity breeds a good deal of contempt. How do make a monopoly palatable? Nobody really knows, so Microsoft veers between feel-good “our software helped Little Johnny become a classical pianist”, clumsy dinosaur metaphors, and 90’s stand-up comedians.
The last time Microsoft successfully marketed itself was over a decade ago, but they did so when all the ducks were lined up for them. There was nothing special about the pedestrian and obvious ‘Start’ campaign, but Windows ’95 was an undeniably compelling advance over its predecessor, Apple was lost at sea, and Linux was still only to be contemplated by nerds like me.
Nowadays, Microsoft is looking to advertising because their brand is taking a beating from every front, and a clever advertising campaign is what you're supposed to do when you need to shore up your position. But Microsoft's biggest enemy is its own boring unavoidable self. If their products spoke for themselves, Microsoft could just get away with buying another Rolling Stones song.
1 Whenever you feel your opinion on software productivity, DRM, Mac vs PC vs Linux… or pretty much anything regularly discussed on the Internet has any chance of being meaningfully debated in the wider world, it helps to point at your computer and say to yourself: “the rest of the world calls that the hard drive”