Apple and its ad agency TBWA/Chiat Day are finally bringing the John Hodgman-Alex Bogusky smackdown full circle. As I chronicled in Fast Company‘s June cover story “Can Alex Bogusky Help Microsoft Beat Apple?”, for nearly three years Microsoft was on the receiving end of an unprecedented brand assault–rebranded by its smaller competitor “‘as a kind of self-conscious and self-absorbed nerd that is out of touch with the normal lives and needs of its users.'” (“Nobody messes with anyone in the tech industry the way Apple has messed with Microsoft,” says tech analyst Rob Enderle. “It’s the first time I’ve ever seen a major national campaign that disparages a competitor, and the competitor just sits back and takes it. If somebody tried to do that to , you wouldn’t be able to find the body.”)
In September, the unlikely duo of Crispin and Microsoft landed with a thud with another unlikely duo: the Bill Gates-Jerry Seinfeld tag team. Initially I had suspected it would be yet another Boguskian cultural decoy, using the confusion of the churro-con-shoe store ad as a mere buzz generator. But that requires the luxury of time and patience, something I suspect Microsoft wasn’t in the mood for after its $300 million spend and mass panning by the press. (I actually thought the second “New Family” spot where Gates did ‘the robot’ was pretty smart and funny, but then again, I’m an ad junky, not Microsoft’s target consumer).
Crisp-o-soft quickly recovered with Act II–abruptly claiming this was the plan all along (no one bought it)–and blasted their 2.0 vesion of “I’m a PC” on the TV-waves. Back in June, Bogusky had told Fast Company, “It’s part of your job as a marketer to find the truths in a company, and you let them shine through in whatever weird way it might be.” Which is exactly what they did; except, instead of finding truth in their client, they expose the truth of their client’s customers.
In Microsoft’s “I’m a PC” spot, the opening scene with the real-life nerdy Hodgmanesque Micosoft engineer standing in front of a white backdrop is a bait and switch, tricking the viewer into thinking it’s yet another Apple ad. In one moment it validates the geeky caricature Apple has painted of Microsoft, then simultaneously debunks it with the 30 or so other PC-users ranging from celebs like Deepak Chokra and Eva Longoria to an Icelandic fisherman and African educator, who all proudly state their allegiance to the tech juggernaut. Crispin’s point comes across loud and clear: in the end, we are all use PC’s and by offending Microsoft, you’re offending each and everyone one of us. It makes Apple’s Mac vs. PC spots look superficial, snarky, and reductionist. It seemed to suck the juice out the campaign, making it difficult to run now without looking stupid. Crispin: mission accomplished.
Except now, the game is on. When I wrote the story back in June I wondered whether Crispin would have the chutzpah to continue the narrative Apple started. We were pretty sure they wouldn’t–why even acknowledge the abuse? Well they have, and for a while I noticed the barrage of Mac vs. PC ads suddenly seemed to disappear. I realize now that the TBWA/Chiat Day team was simply retreating in its biometrically sealed Frank Gehry-designed Media Arts Lab cooking up the strike back. Apple’s “Bean Counter” spot released last weekend parodies the hundreds of millions of dollars Microsoft poured into its advertising budget, as opposed to what it could be investing into its problematic product Vista. It’s smart, but is it too meta, too inside baseball, do consumers really care about this branding pissing contest? What do you think Microsoft should do next? Or is it time for someone to start a new narrative?