So they’ve announced that the Seinfeld/Gates ads for Microsoft are officially ending. While I understand the underlying concept of the two ads I’ve seen (are there more?) I’m still puzzled by the execution.
They are using Bill Gates to personalize Microsoft, making it less of a monolith and more into a friendly, cheerful entity. Seinfeld is there to be the comic foil and provide the yuks, showing how Gates can be an everyman like the rest of us. Seems simple, right? It would be, if the jokes and execution weren’t so oblique. It’s like the writers tried so hard to be hip and self-aware that they forgot the concept completely, so the situations and dialogue become a 30-second riff on shopping and “Real America”, subjugating the message behind “We’re stinking rich and look how funny it is to live with the little people” jokes. Yeah, so we all have a bitchy grandmother who lives with us, and we eat leftovers, and we have lousy taste. I’m sure you have an ugly lamp somewhere on your estate too, Mr. Gates.
So what does this say about the brand? To me it emphasizes the divide between the huge, wealthy corporation (Gates) and the customers it services (the family), and the tone of the jokes highlight how it looks down on the rest of us. Seinfeld is there for some unknown reason; his presence is pretty much superfluous in the context of the setup. The same effect could have been achieved without paying him millions to show up, and could have humanized the Gates character even more.
Let’s examine the Gates character for a minute, too. I’m calling him a character because he is there to portray the human side of the company, and the in-joke is that he’s “just like the rest of us”, even though he could buy and sell any country on earth. He does get humanized, and they even show his sense of humor, something the Microsoft PR machine was never really able to achieve. But no amount of kidding around will change the fact that he is one of the five wealthiest men on the planet, and that he will never be “one of us.” When his Vista install crashes, he has five of the smartest men at Microsoft immediately parachute into his billion-dollar estate to fix it, while we all have to sit on hold with the Geek Squad for three hours. They also never made a visceral connection between Microsoft and Gates. It’s implied, but it doesn’t go any further than that, and his reason for being in the commercials is never really explored or explained. Finally, and this is the most obvious and perplexing point of fact: He doesn’t work there anymore. He works for a foundation he started which tries to find creative ways to give away billions of his dollars in aid. Yes, he will always be the figurehead for the company, but that just underlines their most serious problem: They have no real brand identity.
So what does this million-dollar marketing effort achieve? Absolutely nothing. It leaves us all scratching our heads attempting to divine the message. Is it about Seinfeld? Is it about shoes? What is it supposed to mean? The end result is an ambiguous celebrity endorsement that showcases the failure of Microsoft to be able to connect, on an individual level, with the billions of people it touches every day. My guess is that a lot of people are in big trouble as a result of this campaign, and that there is a scramble to reshoot new ads which will be as bland and cold as the previous attempts to promote the company.