Nov 09

Astroturfing with Microsoft

astroturfAnyone familiar with the term astroturfing? It’s what happens when a company or organization tries to create a grassroots movement — using fake grass. That is, they scheme to give their cause the appearance of a popular movement, when they’re actually out for themselves. Sound like anyone we know? We’ve been analyzing Microsoft’s efforts one by one, but when you zoom up for the aerial view, the pattern is pretty darn clear. Microsoft is on an astroturfing tear:

Look at the Laptop Hunters campaign — featuring real people searching for the perfect laptop. Oh. They’re actors.

Look at the Windows 7 launch parties — using you to enlist your friends and relatives into the revolution.

Look at the Microsoft Stores hype — promoting concert ticket giveaways to help build that frenzied crowd on opening day.

Look at the new Windows 7 campaign — portraying the new OS as a product “built by the people.”

One little problem: you can’t start a grassroots movement for a company that owns 95% of the market.

Microsoft knows that people don’t like them, so their solution is to, uh … show people liking them. There’s logic to this, but only to the terminally unimaginative.

In stark contrast to Microsoft’s astroturfing, Apple uses real customers in their ads only rarely — yet they’ve created super-passionate advocates. They don’t use other happy customers as a lure, they simply present their products in a variety of interesting ways. They strike a chord with current and new customers alike.

Great advertisers have always understood that authenticity is what connects with customers. When Nike celebrates the spirit of the athlete, it’s authentic. When Mini-Cooper talks about the fun of driving, it’s authentic. When Microsoft shows off a rising tide of happy enthusiasts — we can’t help but smell the fresh plastic.

[A big thanks to my writer friend Andrew Tonkin in LA for inspiring this topic. Check him out.]

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  • Cory

    I don’t get Microsoft’s game here… I keep waiting for more… I keep thinking that a company like Microsoft, who has spent millions on these campaigns, has to have a bigger game plan, there has to be something BIGGER coming, something to tie it all together.

    Let’s look at the early history here:

    1) You have ads where Microsoft pretends Vista is another new operation system and tries to pawn it off and dupe the people in their commercial. As consumers, I think we’ve all been duped before, and I think a commercial about duping people is just sending the wrong message to your customers.

    2) Then you have a series of commercials about NOTHING…. like Jerry Seinfeld helping Bill Gates (a billionaire) buy shoes… and Bill is being cheap about it. There was no point to these commercials… you had everyone waiting for the next commercial, could be smart, to tie it all together, to get to the punch line… and NOTHING. They missed an opportunity here…. everyone wanted to see where is was going and they left us hanging… it’s like watching a show where you spend months or years following it and then they cancel it… with no end. Couldn’t the take a cue from the TV series “The Fugitive”… even Richard Kimble found his one armed man…. or from the Seinfeld show…. where they are still in jail.

    3) The “I’m a PC” commercials…. where they want their customers to think of themselves as PC’s … I don’t get the point and I don’t think so…. I know of no one who gets this… I’ve never heard anyone tell me that “they’re a PC” because they use a PC. The other issues is this…. both Macs and Windows machines are PC (Personal Computers)… only Macs are Macs…. so exactly what are they selling with “I’m a PC”.

    4) Laptop hunters – where they always look at Apples first… then they compare Apples to Oranges and decide to buy the Orange…. huh! They actually admit their flaw in one commercial where the fake customer actually states that Macs are more about the aesthetics then power… then the actor proceeds to buy a less powerful Windows machine. Every time I’ve purchased a laptop…. I look at both beauty and power… including the Dell I purchased. Why can’t I have both…. and it’s exactly what Apple gives it’s customers…. Apple cares about both, and it shows. Microsoft assumes that it’s customers are stupid and won’t check… but some did… some people did compare the specs of the computers in the commercial… and Apple won. The other issue with these commercials is what were they selling…. in the first two spots they picked HP laptops… isn’t Microsoft shooting itself in the foot here with it’s other partners like Dell and Lenovo to just name two.

    Now we fast foward to the Windows 7 commercials and your point about the campaign and astroturfing and it all makes sense… sort of. I think it’s the dumbest set of commercials ever… I think it’s caused total brand confusion and the customers have no idea what to think. Who ever came up with these commercials…. fire them!

    One more point about brand confusion: Apple has Apple stores with the Apple logo…. the same logo on my iPod, iPhone, and Macbook Pro. The “Windows Store” has a different logo then Windows…. what???

  • And don’t forget Microsoft’s handling of the Windows 7 launch on their website!

    It is completely PATHETIC.

    They are trying to build grassroots momentum behind Windows 7 by flashing RANDOM TWITTER USERS’ (ahem) “reviews” of Windows 7!

  • Liebman

    Great post, as usual, Mr. Segall.

    One minor point that has nothing to do with your logic: Astroturfing (obviously a euphemism derived from the synthetic grass patented by Monsanto in 1965) retains is initial capital. Wikipedia concurs.

  • Scott – Thanks for the pointer to the “random” tweets:

    Mighty odd – how come there’s nothing negative or even indifferent there? Clearly the stream is moderated. Note the curious lack of @’s and #’s too; this has all been moderated and edited, which makes me suspicious. Some quick spot-checking suggests that the tweeters are authentic, though one of them posted elsewhere that he prefers Mac OS X to Windows 7!

    All of this is given the appearance of a random feed by inclusion of neutral updates: “installing Win7 now,” etc.

    Lesson: with millions of users out there, don’t be swayed by 20-30 carefully chosen positive reviews.

  • sorry to jump in late here, but doesn’t this describe most of all advertising? while a small number of companies hold higher values (and opinions of their customers) most just want to move product off shelves… while you can’t (or shouldn’t) outright lie about something, most of it is “artful persuasion” or “creative salesmanship”… just run through most of the campaigns you see on TV or read in the papers:’

    oil companies telling you they are trying to save the environment. car companies telling you their guzzlers are the best in their class. financial companies telling you they understand your economic difficulties while raising rates across the board. technology companies telling they’re interested in smaller business models to deal with. phone service providers … well, i won’t even go there… but you get the point.

    and that is to sell by all means allowable, calling the MS advertising kettle black is kind of like ignoring the soot encrusted furnace it was spawned in… i think it would be better to applaud Apple for their straight-forward approach without the comparisons to competitors that fall short, that list is waaaay too long…

  • ken segall

    Ah, so it’s the feisty Marino visiting today, is it? I’ll stick to my guns on this one. Sure, a thousand advertisers are trying to move products by claiming that theirs is the best, or that they have our best interests at heart. But that’s very different than trying to falsely create the illusion of a “movement.” This astroturfing thing is made easier by all the e-tools at our command these days, but a sham is still a sham.

  • Drew Hall

    I think this is less “astroturfing” and more about “rebranding.” It is clear, many times over, that Windows is currently getting killed by public perception when compared to Apple. Windows, I believe, is actually taking the correct approach with its advertising as of late – they are attempting to market to people, not at them.

    Huge market share aside, anyone involved with any type of business knows that failing to grow and better your company is a recipe for bankruptcy. There is hundreds of examples across every industry where the big market share company did nothing and now, is gone. Its the shift to understand what people want that keeps companies alive.

    That being said, I really hate the authentic approach companies seem to use. Being an Apple (iTouch, Nano), Windows (2 PCs), Blackberry (Storm, Tour), Nike (w/e my shoes are called) I can say that most advertising comes across to be as unauthentic. I’m not an advertising person at all, I just go with what I want/need/works for my situation. Nothing about the “I’m a PC” strikes me as authentic, the iPhone commercials don’t really strike me as “Apple loves phones and apps so much let us show you for 30 seconds” and the Blackberry “love what you do” crap is laughable given that they sell primarily to corporate employees (me) who are impassionate about “what we do.”

    MS should, in my humble opinion, focus on what W7 does do. I like the snapping of applications and I know its been on other OSs for a while, but most people don’t know that. Authentic commercials are nice, but at the end of the day I want to see reasons to buy not reasons to make me believe a company cares about me.

    Sorry in advance for spelling errors ;) I have to run to a meeting.

  • not being feisty, ken, just being mindful of what is we do…

    the post mentions a lot of good points, but i always get wrinkled when the “pot calling the kettle black” thing comes up. Apple has been guilty of some mediocre stuff themselves, not just the stellar stuff… they all have those skeletons in their closets.

    and at the end of the day, isn’t “generating brand loyalty” another way of saying “creating a movement”? all advertisers want the loyalists / movement that some brands attract, Apple being one that comes to mind, Nike another, Samsung another, Mini another…

    and yeah, sorry, just a bit cranky… another fruitful, account-laden meeting about how “we feel that a more creative approach to this problem is not called for at this time”…

  • ken segall

    No, I don’t think generating brand loyalty is the same thing as creating a movement. That’s really the point of this post. It’s one thing to create ads that might generate love and enthusiasm for your product. That’s the nature of every assignment. It’s quite another to create a fake world and try to convince your audience that it’s real.

    Yeah, Apple definitely has its own skeletons in the closet. I can rattle off quite a few low moments (some of which have my fingerprints). I like to believe that the “good guys” in this business always aim high. Sometimes you miss. But we’re not out there trying to hoodwink people into seeing a movement that just isn’t there. That’s not nice.

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