By Harry McCracken | Sunday, April 5, 2009 at 11:25 pm
Can we all agree that it’s always a bad idea to mistake advertising for rational discourse? Axe deodorant won’t cause armies of gorgeous women to throw themselves at your feet. I know of no evidence that cows who live in California are any happier than those in other states, nor that their mood impacts the quality of their milk. Cigarette companies would still be claiming that their products were good for your throat if they could get away with it. After thirty years, I’m still unclear about the benefits of being a Pepper. That’s all fine. (Okay, not the part about the cigarette ads.)
So I haven’t taken Microsoft’s new ads with shoppers spurning Macs for HP laptops too seriously. Mostly I’ve mused about why they seem to ignore Microsoft’s own contribution to the PC and used them as a springboard for PC-Mac price comparisons of my own. (I’m happy to say that these posts have prompted dozens of comments by members of the Technologizer community cogently taking both pro-Windows and pro-Mac stances–they make for great reading.)
Now Fortune’s Philip Elmer-DeWitt, in a post titled “Is the Apple press falling into Microsoft’s trap?“, is wondering whether I’ve been duped by Redmond. He notes a story by Newsweek’s Dan Lyons that says that Microsoft hoped to inspire “ugly attacks by Mac fanboys” with the ads. I know that Elmer-DeWitt has me in mind, because…well he quotes my post about the “Giampaolo” ad that debuted yesterday.
Hmmm. I like Elmer-DeWitt’s blog, but I wince at being called part of the “Apple press.” Whether you agree with my conclusions or think they’re nutty–and lord knows, there seem to be plenty of people in both camps–I’m trying my level best to be objective. Besides, I’m the only tech journalist I know who resigned from a cool job when I was told I had to be careful about annoying Apple.
Anyhow, I don’t feel duped by Microsoft. It’s clear the company wants to provoke debate, and that it’s happy casting itself as the choice of ordinary people rather than the slick aesthetes who supposedly buy Macs. It’s doing a good job of reminding the world that there’ a profusion of Windows machines of every sort, at every price point, and a limited range of Macs at high starting prices. And if there’s any question about whether it’s attempting to tick off Mac fans or not, it’s answered in Lyons’ piece by Microsoft marketing honcho David Webster’s quotes in Lyons’ Newsweek piece: He complains that Apple’s ads are mean-spirited, then says “Not everyone wants a machine that’s been washed with unicorn tears.” Mean-spirited Apple advertising message, meet mean-spirited Microsoft marketing message.
(Side note: I’ve griped myself in the past that some of the talking points in Apple’s “Get a Mac” ads are silly and unfair, especially the repeated notion that Windows PCs are good mostly for spreadsheets and other prosaic business tasks.)
I’ve repeatedly asked why the ads ignore Windows itself, and several commenters have responded by saying that people buy computers, not OSes. (Mary-Jo Foley makes the same point here.) To clarify, I not only get that, but agree that it makes a lot of sense for Microsoft ads to be about PCs, not an operating system. It’s just that if I were giving advice to “Laptop Hunters” shoppers Lauren and Giampaolo, I’d tell them that most of the difference between a Windows PC and a Mac relates to the software they come with, not the hardware. Microsoft’s ads, however, seem to be saying either that Windows and OS X are equivalent or that operating systems are irrelevant. But hey, didn’t I say it’s a lousy idea to take the messages in ads very seriously?
But here’s another issue I’m still confused about that’s about marketing, not technology: Why is it worth Microsoft’s while to center its advertising on the PC-vs.-Mac question? Are there really computer buyers out there who purchase Macs because they’ve somehow failed to notice that well-equipped Windows machines are available for a lot less money? (If so, there can’t be very many of them–Windows’ overwhelming market share would seem to show that the vast majority of buyers understand this fact already.)
Have Apple’s PC-bashing ads rattled Microsoft so much that it’s been distracted into a pissing match that won’t help it sell copies of Windows? Aren’t the people in America who are considering buying either a Windows PC or a Mac dramatically outnumbered by those who are hanging onto aging Windows computers that are nowhere near as good as new ones? Wouldn’t Microsoft get more bang for its advertising buck by addressing these consumers rather than potential switchers to the Mac? I ask these questions not because I’m a Microsoft basher, but because I’m genuinely confused. Maybe Microsoft’s just happy to have people talking about its ads without hating them, and to have them come away with a reasonably positive message about the systems that run its software.
Other theories welcome. And actually, I’m inquiring with Microsoft about whether I can interview someone from the company about the ads so I can stop wondering and get answers straight from the source. I’ll let you know whether it’s receptive to the idea.