Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Fundamental Misunderstandings

I really hate bad journalism. Unfortunately, that seems to be the norm these days. Today, Fortune ran an article with the headline How Microsoft Put Apple on the Defensive on its Apple 2.0 blog.

The point of this article is that the Apple faithful are "on the defensive" because of the Lauren commercial. Now, I think it's fair to say I'm one of the "Apple faithful", as are most of my professional and many of my personal acquaintances. I, personally, haven't seen a shred of defensiveness. Moderate amusement and head-shaking? Yeah. More laughs at Microsoft's expense? Sure. A reinforced opinion that Microsoft's marketing team just doesn't "get it"? Well, of couse.

But defensive? Nope. Nobody feels threatened by this at all. It's a silly ad. If you were to do this with any other product, the inherent silliness would be blatantly obvious. Heck, to me, it's blatantly obvious here, but apparently Microsoft and Fortune don't see it.

If you were to, say, offer to buy somebody a free car as long as they could find one under $10,000, and then sent them off to the Lexus dealer, people would laugh in your face. Lexus doesn't try to compete in the sub-$10,000 market, so sending somebody there to look for a sub-$10,000 car is just assinine, and actually going there to test drive a car with a budget of $10,000 is flat-out idiotic.

The first words that jump to my mind when I saw this commercial were "horribly contrived", followed by "passive aggressive" ("annoying redhead" entered my head also, I must admit). If you want to accuse Mac users of being elitists, at least have the balls to come out and say it outright. This pejorative "I'm not cool enough" crap is the kind of thing you'd expect to see out of an unpopular third-grader who didn't get picked first for dodgeball.

Let's be frank: in an economy like this, there is a strong idea at the heart of this ad: if you have a small budget, you can get a decent computer for fairly little money if you don't mind buying technology that is already obsolete and don't mind putting up with Windows and the various,spyware, crapware adware, and other baggage that comes pre-installed on these machines. Acting like a pouty adolescent is hardly the best way to capitalize on that message, however. There are people with whom the underlying message would resonate, but (call me crazy) I really doubt you're going to entice those people by telling them they're not cool and can't afford the stuff that is cool. I know that was meant as a backhanded swipe at Apple, but it's not going to read that way to the iPod generation, many of whom actually do think Apple's products are pretty cool. I mean, other than Steve Balmer's kids, do you know many young people who don't either have or want an iPod?

So, if anyone's being defensive here, it's Microsoft. If you can't focus on what makes your product better and need to resort to childish name-calling of your opponent, then you don't have much confidence that your product is any good. Understandable when your product is Vista, but still, let's be honest about who's on the defensive.


Ken Pespisa said...

Hi Jeff,

The "I'm not cool enough to purchase a Mac" comment is no worse than the visual statements made in the Apple commercials depicting a hip, young, free-thinker, "Mac" vs. a stale, corporate, bumbling, drab, "PC". Since Apple gave life to the stereotype, it should be fair game for other vendors to reference it too.

That said, I'd probably take a MacBook Pro over an equally expensive HP or Dell, not because it is cooler, but because it's a very solid machine. And I'd happily run Vista on it :)

sandyk said...

Long time reader (love the blog and the book), first time commenter. And for the sake of disclosure on this comment, I am an ex-Microsoft employee from years back (C# convert :-) ), although I happily operates a 17" MBP (running both Leopard and Vista), a Mac Mini, and an iPhone + iPod Touch. So, I would like to think I appreciate both sides of the coin, but maybe I am just being defensive here...

Anyway, maybe it's a semantic argument on what the true meaning of the word "defensive" is, but I think the Fortune article does a good job linking to some interesting responses to the ad that could be construed as defensive. Likewise, your blog post could arguably be
defined as defensive as well. Calling her an "annoying redhead" and the ad "passive aggressive" and attacking the Windows "baggage" might fall under that category. Now the article may have provoked a greater reaction than the actual ad
(nothing makes me madder than when someone say "stop getting mad" when I am not getting mad), so I don't think it's completely fair to suggest your post as defensive of the ad, but I am suggesting why others may do so. Still, a lot of people have felt the need to respond to the ad (such is the nature of "Mac Nation"--I think John Dvorak once said that every time he wants to boost readership, he takes a potshot at Apple and
people come out of the woodwork to rip him apart). Fortune is seizing upon this response, as is Tech Crunch and CNET and what will likely be a few other media outlets if the outcry continues. Is it bad journalism? In this day and age, I could point you to a lot worse journalism that is a lot more concerning on topics a lot more important than this.

To address some of the points you make, you say that to do this with any other product is inherent silliness. Then you mention cars as your example. But Kia does this quite a bit. They continually compare themselves to Lexus and BMW with a significantly lower price tag. They even have a magazine ad where they have stickers of the
logos of the other car companies that you can paste on top of your Kia logo to make you feel better (obviously done in jest, but the point gets across). Now the BMW owners I know would likely scoff at this ad and they would remind you of the superior German engineering. While I'm not a car buff, I can definitely tell the difference having driven both. And let's be honest--
there is a huge difference in social status between owning a BMW and owning a Kia--just like there is a status difference between when I owned my Toshiba and my current Macs. Still, the Kia is a pretty nice car for people who aren't autophiles and I do think it appeals some people whose budget has tightened in the recession to still feel like they are getting a quality product. I believe McDonald's has ad campaign with their coffee vs. Starbucks, targeting their high prices. I've had both and nothing beats my morning cup of Pike Place Roast, so I am not going to switch. But for those who are considering giving up coffee to tighten their belts, they may see this as an alternative. Some stores even put it in their name, like Payless Shoe Stores ("you could pay more, but why?").

The ad is not made for us. We make our livlihoods on our PCs. We don't feel the pinch of the times. You may find the redhead annoying (actually, I didn't), but I personally thought the Mac guy is a
little smug. Plus, as a big fan of the TV show "Ed", I actually remember Justin Long as the high school wannabe that played adolescent social awkwardness perfectly. So I find the ads a little comical in that he strikes me as a poser. But that ad wasn't about me either and I still dropped the $3K for a MBP. Apple sold me on a beautiful industrial design, rocking perf #s (even on virtualized Vista), the flexibility of multiple OSs,
and the prospect of XCode development.

Perhaps the best way to really assess the commercial's validity (not that Microsoft will do this) is to check in on her in 90 days. Is she happy? Does she regret the purchase? Many times in my life, I've gone for the cheaper product only to regret it. Other times, I was thrilled. I liked my Toshiba, but outside of a few incidents, I love my MBP more. Was it worth the extra $2K? For me, probably (though every issue bothers me a lot more than it would've if I had spent less). For my wife who doesn't use her computer in the manner I do, probably not.
For my dad, who loves the internet and e-mail, but that's it and he is on a fixed income? I love him, but I'd probably buy him the redhead's computer. I'd also buy him a Honda Civic, not a BMW.

The ad agency is famous for posting commercials that get people talking. And most media outlets commented on it in one way or another. I was at Microsoft during the "I'm a Mac" ads and, while I heard a lot
of muttering about how facts were distorted or things weren't fairly represented, everyone admitted the ads worked because people would actually stop the Tivo fast forward to watch it or hop over to YouTube.

That's what they're going for here. Agree or disagree, the ad provokes a lot of reaction that Apple can't be happy about. In that sense, say what you want, but Microsoft got what it was looking for.

Thanks for the opportunity to make my comments and I hope you understand the respect in which they were intended. Keep up the great blog posts and I look forward to your future work.

Jeff LaMarche said...

I don't agree.

The Apple commercials have been successful because they are good-natured. They are successful because you like the bumbling John Hodgeman. It doesn't paint out Windows as evil or mean, just not as good a choice.

Lauren's comments, on the other hand, are just snarky. Her "not cool enough" comment comes off as mean-spirited rationalizing, as in, "well, I didn't want one of those cool computers anyway" (said before stifling a sob).

The Apple commercials (of which I'm not actually a huge fan) do not imply any specific traits of the Windows user, they just anthropomorphize the machine as a bumbling but likable soul. Whereas, the new Microsoft commercial paints Mac users with a wide brush. It doesn't say anything about the machine or the OS, instead choosing to attack the people who use those machines.

I'd say it's an important, if not at first obvious, difference. If she had said "you don't get very much for your money", or "I can't afford to pay more money for less computer" or any number of other things that were about the computer or the operating system or the value, it'd be a completely different situation.

The Apple ads are well-executed and good natured adolescent humor, while Microsoft's Lauren commercial is amateurishly captures a childish tantrum and little more.

Jeff LaMarche said...

sandyk - just to clarify - my e-mail was a response to Ken, you submitted while I was typing. I need to digest yours a bit. :)

Ken Pespisa said...

I see your point, Jeff. The message in the Apple commercials is subtle while Lauren's comment is pointed and sarcastic.

It's also incorrectly associating being cool with being rich. Perhaps she should have said "I'm not RICH enough to be a mac person."

I still see the messages as being very similar, though, and both pressure viewers to take sides by putting the other side down. Apple's commercials may be softer in their delivery, but their message is just as clear.

Also I'd like to point out that this commercial is for HP, not Microsoft (directly). Microsoft's response to the Apple commercials was the "I'm a PC" ad campaign where they too were trying to destroy the stereotype created in the Apple ads.

Jeff LaMarche said...


Some interesting points and some stuff to think about. Some things I disagree with, though.

First, is she happy with the purchase? She's an actress and she was given the money for the computer, and probably paid more on top of that. Of course she's happy.

I think I must have done a poor job with part of this post because I am not arguing that a Windows machine is never the right purchase. If you only have $699 to spend, a commodity PC is probably the way to go, but making the size of the screen your only priority is just dumb, and my point is that it was done intentionally to imply something that's not true - that the 17" HP Pavilion in the commercial is comparable to the 17" MBP. That combined with the snarky, grade-school aspersions, caused me to find the ad humorous and a little embarrassing for the people involved, much like most of Microsoft's recent ads.

I suppose you could see my post as defensive in that anytime you respond to being called defensive it can be seen as defensive. It's like being asked if you still hit your wife. How do you respond? Should I not respond because I've been accused of being defensive for fear of coming across as defensive?

Fortune used a sensationalist headline and made it so anybody calling them on their shoddy work can just be written off as "just being defensive". But pointing out the flaws in Fortune's reporting or in Microsoft's marketing strategy should hardly provide a presumption of defensiveness.

I honestly don't feel in any way threatened by this ad, But I think it's telling that a company with 85% market share is behaving like the underdog and resorting to tactics like this.

Now, will the ad work for the target audience? I'm betting not very well. There will always be some people who respond to price and size (it's big and cheap, I want it!), and there will always be people who don't want to be associated with things they perceive as popular, but for most people, Apple products are perceived as good, and I really don't think the "I'm not cool enough" approach is going to win a lot of people over. I think just a little re-tooling and they've got a good strategy for this economy, but people want a good value, they don't want a product that they think is "not as cool", or "not as good", and I think the approach they took left that feeling hanging in the air.

Yes, I know there are other companies that use similar tactics. But look at the examples you give. They are the underdogs They are the companies with smaller market shares trying to increase it. When do you ever see the established market leader using these tactics. Point me to an ad where Lexus or BMW use tactics like this, then I'll have to rethink things some. In the meantime, I think this is a poor strategy for someone in Microsoft's position.

You correctly dinged me on the "annoying redhead" remark - that was a little adolescent of me, though I was just conveying my honest impression of the actress in that role. and I think that goes to the heart of why I believe this add will fail where the "I'm a Mac" commercials have succeeded. They don't show a very likable face. The actress spends most of her time on camera complaining and whining. On a subliminal level, I don't see that attracting a lot of people. But, you're right, I probably shouldn't have said how I felt about her.

As for the "passive aggressive" comment, however, I think that's an accurate portrayal. Instead of making a potentially controversial and difficult-to-support claim (e.g. Mac users are elitist posers), they used a snide comment to imply the same thing. That seems completely passive-aggressive to me.

And yeah, I'd say the article got more of a reaction than the ad. The ad made me laugh. It really did. I didn't find it threatening at all. Mac people have been spreading the link for this ad all over the place because most of us want it seen because it's so patently ridiculous.

Being told that I'm "defensive" because of a laughable ad is a little annoying, I'll admit that.

Jeff LaMarche said...


Microsoft paid for the ad, not HP. This is the next attempt after first the Jerry Seinfeld ads, then the "I'm a PC" ads, this is their next attempt to find their footing in response to the "I'm a Mac" ads.

But they keep forgetting that they're the leader, not the underdog.

Jonathan said...

The ad worked perfectly. Microsoft shifts the focus to "image" and hardware price and away from their core problem - the growing inferiority of their operating system products. Beautifully ironic given that Microsoft doesn't make or price the hardware at all...

While we're all busy talking about what hardware is worth what price and what owning it does to our image, we've all forgotten that what makes a Mac a fundamentally smarter choice for most is the soundness of the operating system.

That 17" screen is going to be looking real small the first time she needs to pay a tech a couple hundred $$ to re-install windows because explorer just let some piece of malware frag the system... I'm guessing we'll never see that in a follow-up ad though.

Jeff LaMarche said...


There's no doubt they've gotten some additional publicity out of this from Apple fans. But in the long run, I think they're hurting themselves.

They are the dominant market leader, for crying out loud, yet their advertising campaigns are reactive, and they are reacting almost exclusively to the moves of one competitor with a fraction of their market share. They own 85%+ of the market and they are acting like a company that's fighting for its life.

Personally, I can't see how, in the long run, that's a good strategy.

Vargo said...

I really don't have any problem with the "I'm not cool enough for a Mac" comment, and I'm always surprised when people are offended (even pro-PC people), because that type of comment resonates perfectly with me. It makes me chuckle, if not out loud.

In fact, I'd love for the PC crowd to take the elitist angle more, but I suppose I'm in the minority. "We're real computer users... we're smarter, we're more powerful, you've got little toy computers, etc." I would hope that this would make existing PC users feel empowered even if they weren't in fact "smarter" than anyone.

But of course, Microsoft would never do this. They wouldn't do anything that doesn't appeal to the very lowest common denominator. If it would offend the most sweet, kind old lady or the youngest, most impressionable child, or hint at any sort of political statement, or generalization of any kind, it's off-limits. So instead we're left with the safety-edged garbage that we're used to.

higgis said...

Hi Jeff,

I agree with your assessment of the add as asinine, but I don't think you can claim that Vista comes with spyware pre-installed.

Crapware, yes.