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.