Feb 13

Microsoft’s uncool quest for cool

In the technology biz, “cool” is a very good thing to be. Ask Apple. Its past revolutions were fueled by the ever-present aura of cool.

But where exactly does cool come from? One thing is for certain: it doesn’t come from standing on a mountaintop and screaming “we’re cool!”

This is apparently one marketing lesson Microsoft has never learned. Because just a few days ago, it stood on a mountaintop (The Grammys broadcast) and screamed its coolness with the above Surface Pro commercial.

Let’s start with the obvious: it isn’t cool. If I had to categorize it, I’d say this spot falls somewhere between “retro” and “embarrassing.”

Watching office workers dance to the rhythm of the “click-in” hip-hop feels like something out of the days of Mad Men, when a song and a dance was a brilliant way to sell instant coffee or floor polish.

Such opinions are subjective of course. Clearly there are a number of people in this world who are entertained by such spots. Some are already arguing that the launch is all about getting attention for a business tablet, and future ads will fill in the details.


The strategy of first putting a stake in the ground is perfectly valid. I simply point out that there are a thousand creative ways to put that stake in the ground without making a significant number of people feel icky just watching.

It’s curious that Microsoft has gone out of its way to create two different tablets with different operating systems — one targeted at consumers, the other targeted at business — yet it advertises them in an identical way. (See Surface RT commercial here.)

Same director, same shtick. And make no mistake, it is a shtick. This commercial is from a school of advertising that went dormant about 40 years ago.

There’s always been something creepy about technology companies dancing to be cool. Dell tried it fairly recently. Hell, even Apple gave it a try once, with fairly pathetic results.

With its two big-budget Surface spots, Microsoft joins the club. A more creative company would have taken all that production money and started its own club.

It brings to mind that classic Steve Jobs video where he said “Microsoft has no taste,” then elaborated “I don’t mean that in a small way, I mean that in a big way.”

With multiple millions sunk into this campaign, Microsoft’s “big way” is showing once again.

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  • Jurassic

    “If I had to categorize it, I’d say this spot falls somewhere between “retro” and “embarrassing.””

    It’s hard to tell which Microsoft ad is more “embarrassing”… this one, or the Seinfeld ad in which Bill Gates pulls at the underwear wedgied in his rear. ;-)

  • Viswakarma

    It is the context for the ad that makes Apple’s iPod commercial makes it cute, while Microsoft’s Surface commercial makes one to throw up!!!

  • dr.no

    Can Microsoft highlight the spec? No.
    Can it highlight the power? No.
    Can It highlight the design? No.
    Can it highlight the apps? No
    Can it highlight Windows compatibility? No.
    Can it highlight Office? No.
    Can it highlight its usage? No.
    Can it highlight its functionality? No.
    Can it highlight its UI? No.

    What is left is a branding exercise.

  • J.C. Webber III

    The difference is, the iPod was all about music, and nothing but music. So it made sense to use music to promote it. Besides, it’s a pretty catch tune. 8^)

  • Dmitri

    Ken, I completely agree with your take. Especially compared to the brand-new iPad ads. The difference is STARK.

    But here’s my question for you: How is this different than Apple using the iPod silhouette dancers, which they did for years? It IS different, there’s no doubt about that, but I’d love your take on why it worked when Apple used the silhouette dancers, and this most pointedly does NOT.

  • ksegall

    This is a pretty easy one. By not actually showing real people, and instead showing a graphic representation of people, iPod ads were selling the emotion of music — not asking you to identify with any type of person.

    iPod is a great example here because the very first iPod ad (linked in this article) did show a real person dancing, and it didn’t really connect with viewers. After that first ad, Apple started with the Silhouette campaign — which was so popular, it became the symbol of the product itself. Unlike Microsoft’s retro treatment, the iPod ads were arty and contemporary.

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  • Dmitri

    Thank you for parsing it for me. As always I appreciate your expertise and generosity.

    I can’t help but also think it has something to do with authenticity. Or maybe just the fact that the MS ad seems outrageously inauthentic, and ANYTHING that inauthentic would have been bad.

  • ksegall

    I totally agree with the authenticity part. With few exceptions, Apple advertising really feels like a reflection of the brand. Microsoft is all over the map, and its advertising tends to do “whatever it takes” to connect with viewers. To me, Microsoft has always seemed like a brand in search of a personality.

  • The ad is kinda cool, but the use of the stylus is a little awkward….”check”
    I love how the most creative thing you can do with a tablet is hold it in one hand while you breakdance… talk about selling the sizzle“ ha

  • John Davis

    I think the ad is perfectly directed at the kind of people who use Windows, isn’t it?

    The kind of people who think spreadsheets, pie charts and digital watches are the ultimate.

    Of course, I don’t know, but I wouldn’t mind betting that Ballmer had a lot to do with this. It has his stamp.

  • Ken,
    Long time listener, first time caller…
    I think this a great spot.
    For Pringles. Or KitKat bars.

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  • Greg

    Microsoft reminds me of Norma Desmond, holed up in their mansion in Redmond, convincing themselves that they’ll be big again. Perhaps it’s finally time for their closeup.

  • sarumbear

    “Such opinions are subjective of course. Clearly there are a number of people in this world who are entertained by such spots…Possibly.”

    No Ken, not possible. Those opinions you eloquently explain are not subjective. There is a reason why Apple is succeeding in the consumer space and Microsoft will never. They know how to tell their story and make us pay them in return of participation to that story.

    On the other hand, Microsoft thinks clicking sounds of a keyboard attaching is a story that consumers will want to associate with. They don’t, they will never be. Hence, unless you change human emotion, Microsoft and their ilk will never, ever succeed in the consumer sector. They are living in borrowed time, tingling over by the force left from their hey-days.

    There is hardly any difference between professional and consumer computers now. Ask the doctor who relies on his iPad to save lives why he is using a consumer device, or ask the retail giant IT manager why he bought iPads for shop-floor assistants to assist customers instead of a dedicated, professional device. Intel and ARM made sure that any computer is now as fast as (almost) any purpose. There is no real reason to buy a ‘professional’ computer any more.

    Humans can now buy what they fancy… and guess what we like to be associated with cool.

  • synthmeister

    This is supposed to appeal to your local IT department?

  • michael

    Spot on Ken. Working for tech companies, I’ve seen so many campaign pitches featuring “dancing” with products I can’t even count them anymore (this includes all the ones that never made it live thank god). What IS it about this hackneyed adman approach? Why does any sane person think this is a good idea? I’ve seen ballet dancers, break dancers, “modern” (think Sprockets)…..you name it. It’s the silliest stuff in the entire ad world, but obviously still a staple in the adman diet.

  • frankie

    Those Micrsostiff Surface ads (and the Surface name alone is lame) are just so corny. The clarion call of clicking in! Jeez. I can’t stand to watch or hear them. I mute to volume and look away.

  • Clive Knight

    The Steve Jobs quote says it all, Ken. The MS ad is simply terrible, but most of all – irrelevant!

  • The problem with the whole campaign is that it focuses around the “clicking” thingie. I mean, all Apple tablets make locking sounds but was this ever shown on an ad? Nope, because who needs to know this?

    The problem with the specific ad is that it mistakes “pro” users with strictly “office / corporate” users. A speadsheet or a presentation can be viewed or edited on almost anything these days. Why show that on an ad? And why not show any of the actual features of the device instead of some click dancing? And why on earth would someone be so happy imagining a full dance and beatbox sequence while wielding spreadsheet tablets? Was George Orwell right?

    Too bad, IMHO it’s a brilliant device, doomed because of Microsoft’s software selections and poor marketing.

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  • I didn’t mind the dancing commercial as much for the consumer product. It was a good way for MS to really stand out in terms of ad clutter. What I think is pathetic is that they brought their “consumer ad” to the “business masses”. How you sell a product B2C is very different for B2B.

  • The same theme is apparent in other part of their marketing like the Biz Spark program with which they try to get make Developer and Startups care for their platforms like Azure. But I actually like the Microsoft team that is sitting here at STARTPLATZ (http://www.startplatz.de) in Cologne, Germany, .. but I am not sure that it will tip me over the edge.

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