Microsoft's new ad creates PR possibilities

Microsoft's newest ad campaign featuring comedian Jerry Seinfeld was widely panned by bloggers and reporters for being mostly irrelevant or unfunny, but marketing experts say it has won the technology giant a unique PR opportunity.

Microsoft's newest ad campaign featuring comedian Jerry Seinfeld was widely panned by bloggers and reporters for being mostly irrelevant or unfunny, but marketing experts say it has won the technology giant a unique PR opportunity. The ad, which began airing last week, follows founder Bill Gates and Seinfeld in a meandering conversation that takes place in a discount shoe store. Many have speculated that the ad is Microsoft's answer to Apple's “Mac versus PC” ads, which portray PCs as boring and inflexible.

So far, the ad has sparked a conversation about the brand that moved some bloggers away from complaining about some of its products. Suddenly, the conversation about Microsoft has shifted to its brand, sense of humor, and personality. Because its brand has been wrought with likability woes of late, these conversations are a chance for the PR team to step into the course, says Dean Crutchfield, an independent brand consultant who has worked with such brands as Pepsi, GE, and Target.

“We're now dealing with the reaction from the market to this ad and PR can grab it by the horns and push it through,” Crutchfield says. “PR can become a big part of the success of this campaign by bringing a lot of clarity to it.”

Criticism also often makes for more compelling news stories and blog posts, giving the ad additional traction because of the media firestorm it has created, he adds.

“The world now is wide open for Microsoft to share its point of view through its PR activity and media relations,” he explains. “The best brands in the world are stories told through conversations, and the conversation is now set. What has happened so far is the perfect platform for PR to operate from.”

When asked about the PR strategy accompanying the ad campaign, a spokesperson for Microsoft told PRWeek, “Given that we are in the beginning of an active marketing campaign, it's premature to engage in conversations at this time on our PR strategy.”

A Microsoft statement following the ad's airing said the campaign is a “first” and “ambitious effort” to reconnect with consumers.

Crutchfield says Microsoft has wisely abstained from talking too much about the campaign before it runs its course. “What they're doing is a classic teaser campaign. We're left wondering what's next, but eventually we're going to see Microsoft pressured to give more answers.”

But Heidi Groshelle, principal at Groshelle Communications, which helped launch Firefly Mobile in 2005, says Microsoft should react while the ad is fresh to help quell criticism about why it selected Seinfeld if the goal was to build a hipper reputation.

“I would advise them to... tell [the media] the background story as to why they did this,” she says. “Are Bill Gates and Jerry Seinfeld friends? PR can play up things, like whether Seinfeld is a loyal Microsoft user and uses it for business, or make it more personal and talk about how he uses it with his kids.”

Maria Russo, who covers Internet culture for the Los Angeles Times, argued on the paper's Web Scout blog that the ad had offensive class overtones: “Let's start with the premise of these two famous, rich people out discount shoe shopping. With economic news so grim right now, it's hard to find it amusing, even given the lore of Gates' coupon-clipping habit.”

Russo told PRWeek that even though many of her readers said she was overanalyzing the ad, it still needs context. “Was it gently mocking Gates?,” she asks.

In fact, the Microsoft statement said only that the Gates-Seinfeld excursion had “nothing” to do with the software in the “classic Seinfeld sense.”

However, Noah Brier, head of planning and strategy at The Barbarian Group and founder of Brand Tags, says PR pros shouldn't underestimate the value of keeping mum while a campaign unfolds.

“Other than the Super Bowl, how often do people talk about ads?” Brier says. “Microsoft should let this play out. I think there are times to listen to everyone and there are times not to listen to everyone... the people talking about this may not be the audience for this ad. They may not be talking to early adopters.”

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