Jan 10

When good jokes go bad


Anyone can have a joke fall flat at a party. It takes some real effort to flop on a global scale.

Yet for every campaign that has just the right kind of humor to succeed (like Apple’s Mac vs. PC), there seem to be a dozen dismal flops (like Microsoft’s Bill & Jerry).

You can analyze that to death — and some clients do — but what it boils down to is this: humor is just so damn subjective. Your brilliant bit of comedy may not seem quite so brilliant to the client, the focus group or even the director you fought so valiantly to sign. There’s also a far more horrifying possibility: your idea may not be as brilliant as you think. Hey, it happens. It’s not like the greatest creatives in our business haven’t made some colossal misjudgments.

Whatever. I was only thinking about this because I was struck by a series of videos that came my way before the holiday break. They make an interesting point about scoring with humor — regardless of the size of the budget. Some PC fanboy created his own satire of the Mac vs. PC spots, making PC the hero. Here’s an example:

Yes, it’s a total rip-off of the Apple spots. But you know what? This actually makes a better anti-Apple case than anything I’ve seen Microsoft do in the last year. With humor, it points out the fallacy of Apple’s argument (at least the fallacy from PC’s point of view). It amplifies some things people are already willing to believe about Apple. And, as Apple demonstrates daily, the intelligent use of humor makes it possible to deliver a brutally competitive message while remaining perfectly lovable.

I don’t suggest that Microsoft just rip off their competitor’s campaign. (Although they already directly acknowledge Apple’s campaign in their marketing, with little elegance.) My point is that humor, based on insight and intelligence, is an incredibly effective tool. It’s just that humor, insight and intelligence don’t often travel together.

(If you’re interested you can see a couple more of these PC-centric YouTube satires here and here.)

Tags: , , ,

  • that was a cheap shot, like ripping off another comedian’s jokes and applying them to your act… sorry, fail… being based on the perceptions of the actors playing the Apple characters, Mac & PC, it said nothing about the products …

    and wasn’t very funny, but there you go … that was your point wasn’t it?

  • ken segall

    Kindly excuse any fuzziness while my brain ramps up to cruising speed following the holiday break. My point was that this amateur series of videos worked better than the spots Microsoft has spent tens of millions of dollars to produce in their effort to counter Apple.

    For me, it boils down to humor. Microsoft’s attempts to get on our good side with sophomoric humor falls terribly flat, while Apple continues to spark debate with well-written, amusing points of difference. If the author of these YouTube videos can create spots that combine humor with a bit of fighting spirit, you’d think that someone in the Microsoft world could do the same. I’m not saying they should copy Apple’s spots — only that they should set their GPS for a wittier, more intelligent place.

  • ChuckO

    The beauty of that parody is it succinctly nails the way a lot of people feel about Apple but couldn’t have articulated.

    It’s a shame Mac doesn’t have a real foe the world would be a better place for it.

  • When I first heard Crispin Porter & Bogusky had won the $300M ad contract from microsoft I remember thinking their task is unenviable and that I’d be interested to see what they came up with. Turns out they produced complete dross. I agree that while this format is much closer to the mark but is perhaps a little too derivative.

  • ken segall

    @Tom Coady:
    Agreed on all counts. Yes, that video is way too derivative (beyond derivative — it’s an exact replica!). I was only using it as an example of the potential for a more biting form of humor that might accomplish what Microsoft has been trying to do in all their failed attempts. And yes, it’s too bad about Crispin. For all the great work they’ve done, their association with Microsoft has been hurting their creative reputation, not helping.

  • I totally agree on the fact the 90% of all ideas needs to be killed in the creative phase, but I think the only real excuse for taking a perfectly good joke/campaign/call-it-what-you-want and letting it scream failure is this: TOO MANY COOKS and too many personal opinions involved in the decision making process …

  • ChuckO

    C’mon the second Gates/Seinfeld add was funny! Check it out again:


    Picking Seinfeld only reinforced how behind the times and out of it Microsoft is but the commercial is funny.

    You could say they were a success in that they are an honest reflection of Microsoft’s sensibility.

    Which is probably Microsoft’s big problem. Apple is Apple and that’s attractive. Microsoft just ain’t. What are these agencies supposed to do with that.

  • ChuckO

    Here’s the comments that come wit that video. Pretty funny themselves.:

    epic fail part 2…

    hey we are here a prig seinfeld and geek gates … we are rich so fuck you…

    They make fun about normal ppl. The hard working ppl are stupid, uneducated and living like them is like a prison… so what the moral?

    You can smell that arrogance all over this advertising.

  • ken segall

    I can’t believe I actually watched the whole thing again, but that’s the kind of respect I have for commenters here :) Unfortunately, it all comes back even worse than it was when it was new. A couple of amusing moments spread over 4.5 minutes. Awkward. I agree that it’s a really tough assignment, and I feel for anyone who is tasked with it. On the other hand, there is that shot at advertising glory. Not sure if it’s the agency, the client, the process or a combination of all that’s to blame here — but that’s a lot of time and money to spend on something so wrong.

  • ChuckO

    Can advertising really work like that? Would the Mac/PC ads work if Apple wasn’t Apple? Is there a good example of an incompetent company (especially one like MS that have a long history of missing the mark) saved by advertising? I can’t see what anyone could do for them when their real problem is executing at the fundamentals of their business not bad ads.

    For me Microsoft’s real core competency is blocking competition and that ain’t working for them anymore and it’s probably too late to get great at software.

    I watched that commercial twice and at this point it seems very David Lynch to me. Suburban innocence twisted by corrosive evil (see Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks). ;-)

  • ken segall

    Ages ago, Chiat/Day did a famous self-promotion newspaper ad featuring their greatest work under the headline “The client made us do it.” That’s the bottom line: clients always get the advertising they demand. Incompetent companies can’t really save themselves with great advertising because they’re not together enough to understand the power of great marketing, align themselves with a great agency and and demand greatness. The curious thing about Microsoft is that they DID go out and get a renowned creative shop — and they’re still floundering with bad creative. That leads me to think there are many other factors at play, probably process-oriented. But you’re also correct that if the client has fundamental business issues, no amount of creativity is going to fix it. Apple is that rare combination of brains, vision, creativity and focus. Tough to match that with a large bureaucratic organization. Oh, and long live David Lynch! Big fan here.

  • ChuckO

    After thinking about this a little more I think Microsoft has benefited from their recent ad campaigns in a couple of important ways.

    1. They didn’t really need to answer Apple’s ads in a competitive sense but they did need to for their corporate self-image. Corporate morale demanded it.
    It couldn’t have been fun at MS during the height of the Mac vs. PC campaign.

    2. Most important. The $$$ spent on ads gets them a lot of consideration at the big magazines and newspapers.

  • ChuckO

    Ken, I just went through all the old entries and nothing on the Palm Pre girl?! I’m assuming it’s to late for a full blown entry on the ads but what was your take? I think this was the original.

  • ken segall

    Correct! I’ve not made a peep about the mysterious Pre woman. That campaign had already been around a while when I started this blog, so I kept my distance. I know people who have violent reactions to these spots, but I’m somewhere in the middle. The first few times I saw the Pre ads were in the lobby of my office building, on a screen that had no sound, so I was lured in by the visual only. It felt different, which was good. The problem for Pre, Droid, Nexus One or any of them is that once you get lured in, you discover that it’s just another smartphone. The features are just not very distinguishing. When iPhone first appeared, you’d literally never seen anything like it. It fascinated you. So we got pure product commercials that showed a distinct difference. Since the other companies can’t do that at this point, they have to wrap their messages in some kind of look and feel — which can easily distract from the product, or tie it to one particular kind of person. Now that we can look back, it’s interesting to see the difference in approaches between the soft and fanciful Pre lady and the brash, take-no-prisoners Droid. Measured in pure intelligence, I’d say Apple wins. And intelligence feels very good for a smartphone.

  • ChuckO

    I’d love to see a documentary about how they were created. The various elements add up to an experience that made me, at least initially, uncomfortable. The music + the visuals + the deep but meaningless copy + the actresses voice = a really bizarre experience. They have a great pretentious quality to them like German expressionist film.

    A couple of things fascinate me about it:

    1. Someone thought it was a good idea and sold it to Palm. I assume they’re based on some piece of art that could be shown to the customer as an example.

    2. The discipline involved in identifying and assembling the various elements to successfully create the experience.

  • ken segall

    If an ad can make you uncomfortable, it has some kind of power. Bizarre can be good, I guess it just remains to be seen whether it will help Palm. At this point, it appears not. Hard to say what part of the idea came from the agency and which part from the director, but it all came together to be what it is. Also hard to say if this was the vision from the start. Perhaps the original idea was simply “mysterious, alluring, soft-spoken woman speaks eloquently to camera” and then it was all experimentation from there. These are the great mysteries of the craft! Maybe someone who was involved can make a comment and help us out.

  • ChuckO

    One interesting thing about it to me is I bet a lot of people would say that it’s the sort of thing Apple would do (especially detractors): arty, pretentious, aggressively obscure but which isn’t really Apple’s MO at all. Apple does clean, upbeat, simple ads.

    One thing I just got from thinking about these two failed campaigns (Palm and Microsoft) is what makes Apples stuff great: they’re able to stand out without appearing cynical like the Gates and Jerry ads or elitist and odd like these Palm ads. They stand out while remaining approachable.