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DAN NEIL

Windows 7 is reduced to rainbows and unicorns

Microsoft's new ad offers convincing evidence that the software giant has no shame left.

September 15, 2009|DAN NEIL

It's official. Microsoft has no shame. None. They should just stop paying rent on that storage unit where they keep their shame because they, as I said, have none.

The new TV ad campaign for Windows 7 (Crispin Porter & Bogusky) kicked off this week with a masterpiece of emotional manipulation that brings back Kylie, the precocious 4-year-old girl from the "I'm a PC" series. The slightly lispy Kylie -- who pronounces the product as "Windows Theben" -- is sitting at a table in front of a PC. "My name's Kylie, and I found these happy words all over my dad's computer. . . ." (Uh-oh, I hope dad's been behaving himself with his PC.) The "happy words" are rave reviews for Windows 7 from tech magazines, which Kylie then puts into a slideshow with images of a unicorn, a kitten in marshmallows, a bunny in a straw hat. "Happy words need happy pictures." Uh-huh. We can only assume as the campaign rolls out to the Windows 7 launch date of Oct. 22 that we'll see baby penguins and water-skiing squirrels hawking for the Redmond, Wash., software giant.

"I'm a PC and more happy is coming," Kylie says, with a sweetness that makes my teeth want to fall out.

I have many reactions here. First, I love the fact that the Death Star of software has been so beaten up in the computer ad wars that it would countenance the use of adorable children and rainbow-saddled unicorns in its advertising.

This is advertising as hostage situation: Buy Windows 7 or the little kid gets it.

Second, to the extent that the PC wars come down to a weird analog of identity politics -- Mac users are smarter/cooler/hipper, PC users are dumber and work-driven -- this ad does nothing to allay the impression that PC somehow means "remedial." Yes, Kylie can now make crummy slideshows. As one online wag said, "This ad will be very popular with the ugly-font church flyer crowd."

As an aside: I'm a computer bisexual -- I use a Mac at home and a PC at work -- and my impression is that you actually have to be a little more on your game, tech-wise, to use a PC. My Macs drive themselves. PC users are the clever ones. That said, the Windows 7 reviews have been extraordinarily effusive and suggest that, on a feature-for-feature, ease-of-use basis, perhaps Microsoft has caught up with Mac.

That wouldn't suggest a way forward for Microsoft's advertising, would it? Maybe, but let's give 'em more kittens, just to be safe.

Third, this ad feels like capitulation. Apple's share of the U.S. home computer market has tripled in the last five years, to 8.7% in the second quarter of 2009. That includes a 5.5% year-over-year increase against a 1.2% retreat in the home computer market overall. Apple's "Get a Mac" campaign (TBWA/Chiat/Day) starring actors John Hodgman (as the allegorical PC) and Justin Long (Mac), has in three years become pop culture bedrock. Apple pounded these commercials into our collective consciousness with a TV ad buy of more than a quarter-billion dollars in 2008, according to TNS Media Intelligence. In the first two quarters of 2009, Microsoft belatedly, lumberingly responded with a jumbo TV ad buy of its own valued at $169 million.

And yet, on the creative battlefield, Microsoft is still getting its large head handed to it. Apple recently launched a riposte to the "PC Hunters" ad in which a redheaded Lauren look-alike (Lauren is the character in the Microsoft ad who buys a PC for under $1,000) is persuaded to buy a Mac instead. In the spot PC introduces "Top of the Line PC" (played by Patrick Warburton, the actor who played David Puddy on "Seinfeld"). Warburton's oily smooth reassurances falter: "Look, Lady, any PC you get is going to have those problems. . . ." Just like that, Microsoft's Lauren character has been abducted and reprogrammed like an errant cultist.

With the Kylie ad, I sense Microsoft turning away from the tete-a-tete, mano a mano ad wars with Apple. That's smart. Microsoft has only legitimized the critiques leveled against it by Apple, and it is getting outflanked in every skirmish. Forget Mac. The Windows 7 campaign had better tell people what's cooler and more fun about the operating system and why it transcends the buggy, virus-prone allegations of the past.

Meanwhile, take a breath and appreciate the raw power of creativity and the impotence of mere budget. The Mac ads are two actors, sometimes three, on a white background, and they kill, simply crush the PC ads. It reminds me that the best production of "Hamlet" I ever saw was a bare-stage rendering in London, while the stalest and most fretful was Kenneth Branagh's price-no-object film spectacle.

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