In the smartest advertising move in quite some time, Microsoft has put on hold its controversial Gates-Seinfeld campaign in favour of a safer, more familiar, less fucking random approach, initiated with this “I’m a PC” spot:

The line “I’m a PC” and the visual use of John Hodgeman against a white background are an obvious rebuff to Apple’s “I’m a Mac” campaigns, which have proven wildly popular and successful. But the rumour is that third Gates-Seinfeld ad is ready to air. (a fourth one was halted 3 days into production). The decision to air the spot will depend mainly on the success of these “I’m a PC” spots. Basically, they need to take the temperature of the viewing public as to their overall tolerance for Microsoft. There were as many as 12 Gates-Seinfeld ads planned, but who knows if any of them will see even get a green light, let alone see airtime.

Were the Gates-Seinfeld ads a good idea in the first place? Were they doing anything for the Microsoft brand?

Many of us in the tech community were left scratching our heads over the choice to sign on Jerry Seinfeld to begin with. But knowing how Microsoft operates, it wasn’t that surprising — they have a long history of bad taste, dad-style humour, and a massive lack of cool. So a has-been comic seems just there speed.

The problem with Microsoft’s brand is that it doesn’t exactly stand for anything. While you might be forced to associate the company with terms like “innovation” and “technology”, most people associate them as “big” and “dominant”. The anti-trust hearings in Europe and the US don’t help matters.

Crispin Porter had a massive project on their hands, but I’m not sure any advertising agency could clean up the MS brand. With products like the Zune hitting the market, the debacle of Windows Vista, über-cheesy slogans like “the Wow starts now”, and 20 years of general stodginess can’t be undone with an infinity of 30-second spots. And since the first ad was 1:30 and second was a staggering 4:30, I think we’ve proven that.

Regarding the ads themselves, I’m sure you’ve already heard my feedback. A series of disjointed items and not-funny jokes remind me more of stream-of-consciousness daydreaming than a coherent narrative or ongoing comedy sketch. It has been proposed that everything is actually a metaphor with shoes standing in for operating systems, and churros are software, etc., but I don’t buy it. I think the whole point of the ads were to get people talking, even if all they’re saying is “have you lost your mind?”

It’s a shame they are abandoning this approach because it’s creating an impression. Not necessarily an improved brand image or product sales, but an impressions. This could have been the next “creepy king”, but now it will be relegated to lectures of advertising classes and amusements of industry geeks. The trainwreck of the Gates-Seinfeld ads was becoming an interesting soap opera among the internet geeks, if no one else. But considering the pricetag, I can totally understand why the plug has been pulled.

As a branding expert, I expect more of the same from Microsoft. Not in terms of advertising, but in terms of software, hardware, services, and everything else. They haven’t shown any initiative to change their culture, which is stuck in the early 1980s, or their organisational structure, which is too big and loosely assembled. Only with fundamental changes can Microsoft begin to change their brand. For example, if they spun off Windows into it’s own company, or if they released a Linux distribution, that would be drastic.

The one area of Microsoft that works well is the XBOX. Since XBOX itself is a brand, it operates very un-Microsoft-ly. It’s cool! And with a unique sense of graphics and industrial design, users can identify and support this brand with any touch-points including packaging, retail, and online arenas. The reason why XBOX has been successful is simply because it’s a satellite of MS, and operates semi-independently. If it were part of the same inner circle, I’m sure it would suck. Or at least be corny.