Screen shot from commercial (Apple via YouTube)

A Tale of Two Ads: “Misunderstood” vs. “Scroogled”

Screen shot from commercial (Apple via YouTube) If you want to know why Apple keeps winning  in consumer markets and Microsoft keeps losing, you can find much of the answer in the ads the two companies use to present themselves to the world. This week, Apple channeled Frank Capra and Vincente Minelli into an iPhone ad in the form of a perfect 90-second nano-feature film. Microsoft, meanwhile, spends its ad dollars to trash the competition and come across as combining the worst features of Mr. Potter and the Grinch. I have worked with both companies for many years and can assure you that while they are very different from each other, both are fiercely competitive, touchy, and as huggable as  hedgehogs. But there can be big difference between what you are and the persona you choose to present to the world.

The iPhone ad (left), titled “Misunderstood,” blows away the memory of the rather odd ads Apple has run lately. In it, a sullen boy or 13 or so seems totally absorbed by his iPhone during the family Christmas celebration. But the kid has really been making a video documenting the family that, when shown via Apple TV, reduces his mother and grandmother to tears. Yes, it sounds sappy as can be but set against a soulful version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas ((The only real fault I can find in the ad is a terrible jump cut in mid-song. I have been unable to identify the performer, but she’s wonderful.)) ,” it packs a powerful emotional punch.

Microsoft’s 90-second anti-Chromebook ad (left), part of a recent extended attack on all things Google, is the complete opposite. A young woman walks into a pawn shop hoping to trade her “laptop” for enough money to buy a ticket to Hollywood. The man behind the counter laughs at her and tells her that because it is a Chromebook and not a real laptop, “it’s pretty much a brick.” “See this thingy,” the man says, pointing to the Chrome logo. “That means it’s not a real laptop. It doesn’t have Windows or Office.” After some of Microsoft’s by-now familiar attacks on Google tracking, pawn shop guy says, “I’m not going to buy this one. I don’t want to get Scroogled.” I’m going to leave aside the ad’s numerous misrepresentations and outright falsehoods (apparently news of standalone Chrome apps has not yet made it to Redmond) and focus on its tone. It is, in a word, nasty. Apple’s ad leaves you with the warm fuzzies, Microsoft’s leaves you wanting a shower. I don’t think it  is a coincidence that this bullying tone of advertising and the general attack on Google were born after Microsoft brought Mark Penn aboard as executive vice president for advertising and strategy. Penn, a longtime Democratic operative and a veteran of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign knows negative advertising inside and out. There are two things well known about negative political ads. One is that voters absolutely hate them. The other is that they work. But selling a consumer product is very different from selling a candidate. U.S. elections, even primaries by the time they get serious, are zero-sum, binary affairs. If you can convince voters that the other guy is a bum, your guy will benefit. Microsoft’s problem, though, is that consumers don’t seem to want to buy its products. I cannot see how telling them that Chromebooks are bad and Google is evil makes them want to run out and buy Windows 8 or a Surface 2.  Considering how thuggish that ad makes Microsoft look, they are probably just as likely to head for the nearest Apple Store. (One very odd criticism of the Chromebook in the Microsoft commercial is that it doesn’t run iTunes.) ((You could argue that the Mac vs. PC ads of a few years ago were Apple’s own foray into negative advertising,  but there were two critical differences. One is that the ads were done with a light and humorous touch. The second is that they favorably compared Macs to Windows rather than simply trashing the competition.)) Microsoft desperately needs people to want Microsoft products (other than Xboxes.) This is not a problem that marketing can solve–better products have to come first–but ads that drip aggression and hostility are only going to make things worse.

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Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.

847 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Ads: “Misunderstood” vs. “Scroogled””

  1. So Apple has a better RDF than MS. But your absolutely right, it’s about imagery. Though Apple’s approach, like the company itself, highlights what you CAN do, not what you can’t.

    We read too much into advertising anyway. The physiological tendency to believe what we see, read, and hear is too strong. Did you notice that the more money grubbing companies, from insurance companies to “cash now” companies have the funniest ads? Talk about a brick placed in a pillow!

    What we really need is some healthy skepticism all around.

  2. I’m tempted to say Microsoft is done. I can’t be sure it’s really that bad but they are *seriously* tangled up in their own net and it’s an open question whether they will ever escape it.

    1. Yes, M$ be kaput in 2 years maximum. AAPL will have their revenge on that filthy, horrifyingly disgusting company. Party like its 2015.

  3. In the penultimate paragraph, shouldn’t it say “…how thuggish the ad makes MICROSOFT look..” rather than Apple?

  4. Considering that Microsoft wants you to give up using Google, Gmail, hangouts, etc, and instead use Bing, Outlook, Skype, etc — all of which are just as much focused on advertising and on selling you as a product to Microsoft’s advertising customers as Google’s products are — the tone deafness of the Scroogled ad campaign is astonishing. Especially when you consider that both MS and Google have been equally complicit with the NSA’s illegal surveillance programs.

    If they were bashing Google’s creepy ad-supported products and suggesting that instead you could use their ad-free, tracking-free, spy-free products that are free with every Office 365 subscription, that would be different… but they aren’t saying that.

  5. Another fine article. Steve. I think you’ve touched on some of the key differences between Apple’s advertising and Microsoft’s advertising, and in doing so, you’ve touched on some of the key differences between the two companies.

    1. OK, the Pawn Stores pawn shop (I’ll admit I have never watched the show.) That just means Microsoft wasted even more money by hiring the stars of a reality show for a poor commercial.

    1. “FWIW I thought the Microsoft ad was clever…” – Brian

      Your definition of “clever” certainly differs from mine.

  6. What is also interesting is the film within the ad, go to YouTube and search for “A Harris family holiday” to see the full length video, all shot on the iPhone 5S. The iPhone has taken pretty good video for a while now, but the 5S feels like a tipping point, I think we’re going to see some really cool stuff done with the 5S.

  7. A pawn shop in the ad is a very negative symbolism. If this is where Microsoft’s great virtues are realized then it leaves a bad taste in the mind of the viewer. Subliminal cues are very important. Sometimes advertisers shoot themselves in their feet by forgetting the subliminal part of their ads. Ads have to be viewed and reviewed to extract the subconscious impact they have on the viewers other than themselves. Those who sell cigarettes would never show one brand being compared to another in a cancer hospital. Those who try to make their weight loss program better than that of others will never take a background of a cake baker. Microsoft is still too engineering driven. Engineers do not have presence of mind. Nor do they see the end users’ convenience. They see everything from a perspective centered around their world views and act surprised when others do not see it that way. BTW, I am an engineer myself and I became aware of that by being in the middle of my peers. Apple or Google do not look at the world from that standpoint. A pawn shop is the only thing that sticks in my mind after seeing that ad and Microsoft has given this message that its products can go for a bargain at pawn shops.

    1. In fairness, the pawn shop in the ad is the store in the reality show Pawn Stars and the guys behind the counter are stars of the show (something I missed originally because I’ve never watched the show.) But I agree the messaging of using a pawn shop was–odd.

      I wouldn’t blame engineers, though, because Microsoft’s media decisions are made by their media people, not engineers. But as I said in the piece, the fact that Microsoft’s media chief comes out of the world of negative political advertising probably is significant.

  8. Well written, I think they’re trying to target older computer buyers in this ad. For example, who would be pawning a Chromebook that probably only cost $200 to begin with; not to mention this product has only been on the market a year or so… AND at the one place that you are certain to get a penny on the dollar of the value for your goods. Yep, one penny.

  9. The performance of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” is by Cat Power. Available in the iTunes Store for $0.69.

  10. I actually find the Apple ad depressing, as the kid is merely a passive observer in his own life. I man how sad, that while his family interacts and has real moments all he can do is stare like zombie into a screen, how very sad.