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Jerry & Bill's shoe business

The woefully flat and contrived TV spot for Microsoft starring Seinfeld and Gates is widely lambasted online.

September 08, 2008|Maria Russo and David Sarno | Times Staff Writers

The new Microsoft commercial, featuring Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Gates out discount shoe shopping, was unveiled Thursday night on TV. By Friday morning, it had zoomed to the top reaches of YouTube's most-viewed list.

The nation momentarily put aside its Sarah Palin obsession to ponder, and mostly condemn, the cryptic 90-second spot from controversial ad firm Crispin Porter + Bogusky, which made the commercial as part of a reported $300-million campaign for Microsoft. In blogs and comments sections all over the Web, rancorous opinions were unleashed.

Seemingly anticipating the lack of enthusiasm, Microsoft offered an explanation on its own site: "Some may wonder what Jerry Seinfeld helping Bill Gates pick out a new pair of shoes has to do with software," it said in part. "The answer, in the classic Seinfeld sense of the word, is nothing." The post forged ahead with, "Nevertheless, the spot is the first and most visible sign of an ambitious effort by Microsoft's Windows business to reconnect with consumers around the globe."

The spot's first problem is that it is not actually tapping into the "nothing" that Seinfeld was famously about. That was the "nothing" of "What'd you do today?" "Nothing." The show's innovation was showing everything the four neurotic friends did together. But the Microsoft spot's shoe-store vignette relies on unfunny, far-fetched details: Seinfeld asking Gates if he ever takes a shower with his clothes on, for example. Thunk.

The whole thing is chilly. It begins with Seinfeld walking past a discount shoe store called Shoe Circus, eating a churro. He is struck by the store's name and promise of quality shoes at great prices. Then he sees Bill Gates trying on shoes through the window and says, "Bill Gates!" as he walks inside to join the fun.

Let's start with the premise of these two famous rich people out discount shoe shopping. With economic news so grim right now, it's hard to find it amusing, even given the lore of Gates' coupon-clipping habit. (Ha, ha! These guys don't really have to shop for bargains like the half-million people who got laid off this year.)

Gates and Seinfeld may both be schlumpy dressers, but their regular-guy qualities stop there. Neither has a public image as the Warren Buffett kind of rich, the frugal sort who knows the value of a dollar and doesn't put himself or his whims ahead of the common person (or so we believe about Buffett). Instead, the ad seems to be making light of bargain shopping, as if it's a lark for these guys or some kind of private joke we're not quite in on.

A bit into the ad, Seinfeld suddenly takes over for the salesman and is helping fit Gates' shoes. As Seinfeld feels around Gates' foot he says, "Is that your toe?" Gates says no. Seinfeld asks what it is and Gates replies "leather," with what appears to be an attempt at a long, meaningful look. Are we supposed to be interpreting something naughty in that exchange? It's not unreasonable, given that we're witnessing the fondling of Gates' feet by a kneeling Seinfeld.

That's, frankly, disturbing enough, but then comes the part where a Latino family is standing outside the store, also eating churros as they look intently into the window. "Es el Conquistador?" The woman asks, and the man replies in Spanish, "They run tight." There are English subtitles. These brown-skinned people have befuddled expressions on their faces; they seem to take Shoe Circus very seriously.

Perhaps they're supposed to represent the consumers "around the globe" that Microsoft is trying to "reconnect" with, but the depiction seems condescending and borderline offensive. They do not recognize Seinfeld and Gates. Does their discount shoe expertise -- and since they're not celebrities, we take it they shop at Shoe Circus because it's in their price range -- mean they are too poor to own a TV? Are they supposed to represent the yearning Latino hordes trying to get in on the American consumerist dream? They make all too strange a contrast with the eternally boyish, carefree zillionaires.

As Seinfeld and Gates cross the parking lot after the purchase, the talk (finally) turns to Microsoft. Seinfeld asks Gates if they'll ever make computers "moist and chewy like cake, so we can just eat while we're working." If it's yes, he says, "Give me a sign. Adjust your shorts."

Then Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, co-chairman of the Gates Foundation, one of the great technology minds of our time, shakes his booty. It seems meant to be humanizing -- the playful side of Bill Gates -- but it comes off as one more awkward touch. This commercial pulls none of the emotional strings that might have helped Microsoft "reconnect" with its audience (not that I remember ever being connected to it). And a decade after "Seinfeld," "nothing" feels empty.

-- Maria Russo

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