Microsoft’s Seinfeld Ads

September 17th, 2008

I dismissed Microsoft’s first new Seinfeld ad because it didn’t say anything to me. It was kind of funny, in the way a random YouTube video can be amusing, but is meaningless and thus forgotten in a few minutes.

The second ad, however, grabbed my attention. I wasn’t immediately sure why — on the face of it, it didn’t seem dramatically different than the first. So I watched it again, and I still wasn’t quite sure, but I felt like I was missing something quite obvious.

So I asked on Twitter: what do you think the ad means? Faruk Ates replied:

the way I perceive the ads, it’s a lighthearted way to present a metaphor: MS = out of touch w/ppl, they’re gonna try and improve.

Faruk’s interpretation is, I think, absolutely correct.

50 seconds into the second ad, after sitting down for an odd dinner with their “normal” host family, Gates and Seinfeld are in their room, and Gates asks why they’re staying with this family. Seinfeld replies:

Why Bill? Because as we discussed, you and I are a little out of it. You’re living in some kind of moon house hovering over Seattle like the mother ship, and I got so many cars, I get stuck in my own traffic. We need to connect with real people.

The ad ends with the phrase “Perpetually Connecting,” which morphs into “PC.”

Before analyzing this ad, let’s discuss a central criticism made of them. Some have said the ads fail because they are not trying to sell anything specifically. No product is shown, no features shown, and no value explained. But that isn’t the point of the ad campaign — the point is to revitalize Microsoft as a brand. Whether it is successful on those grounds or not is a different question.

There are two parts to this ad. First, there is, as Faruk explains, the admission that Microsoft is out of touch with real people (“hovering over Seattle like the mother ship”), and that they are going to try to fix it. This is quite well done; the ad is subtle enough that the viewer can get the point without it being directly spelled out, which makes it feel genuine. The problem, though, is also a result of its subtlety. How is Microsoft out of touch with “regular” people, and what are they going to do to solve it? I can’t answer either question from the ad, even with a general answer, because the ads offer no problem to solve. It’s a start that Microsoft recognizes they have erred, but an apology is useless without recognizing what they did wrong and how they can fix it.

The second part is Microsoft’s attempt at (re-)establishing their mission. They are attempting to answer the most important question a company can ask: why do we exist? Their answer comes at the end — perpetually connecting. Microsoft exists to “connect” people.

Unfortunately, their new company focus, as defined in this ad, suffers the same problem that most company’s mission statements suffer: they don’t mean anything. “Perpetually connecting” is corporate language designed specifically to be vague, so it can mean whatever you or the company wants. It sounds nice, but it means absolutely nothing. And the reason for this is that Microsoft has never really had any mission, so Ballmer is attempting to create one now, some thirty years after it should have been created.

Apple’s mission is clear, and always has been: to break conventions and do great things. Even the name and logo evoke this — their first logo was a drawing of Isaac Newton sitting under an apple tree, and since has been an apple with a bite taken out of it, representing the fruit of the tree of knowledge. That’s a company that knew who they were and what they wanted to do.

This vagueness permeates Microsoft’s products. My issue with Windows has always been how poorly thought-out it is. It feels like a school project where the tasks are delegated to different group members, they each do their parts and then just stick it together the day its due; it has no unifying concept, no central idea. You can’t “get” Windows — you can only learn to work around it.

Just consider the Zune and Xbox Live marketplaces. There should be one marketplace, where you can buy music and video that can be played both on a Zune and Xbox. You would think that is how it works, but it isn’t — the Zune and Xbox marketplaces are entirely separate. Good luck trying to play a movie you rented on Xbox Live on your Zune. There is no reason for their separation, but it exists because Microsoft has no real unifying vision for what they are trying to do.

These are not Microsoft’s “Think Different” ads, as some have claimed. That ad campaign worked because it was a return to Apple’s original and already existing vision and, if you’ll forgive me, it was genuine. I have no doubt that Jobs, and Apple, as an organization believe every word of those ads.

But I also know that Ballmer has no more of an idea what “perpetually connecting” means than I do.

The ads are full of promise, but fail because they don’t really say anything. Instead, they show Microsoft to be exactly what we already thought they were — a mindless, direction-less corporation. And it’s really too bad, because the format they are in is quite promising. The ads are cleverly-written, even irreverent — but ultimately meaningless.

Update: Looks like my timing was appropriate, as ValleyWag is reporting that Microsoft is canceling the Seinfeld ads.