I’m a PC, and I’m Worried About My Image

Microsoft’s $300 million campaign to prove Windows isn’t lame.

Microsoft's I'm a PC ad. Click image to expand.
Microsoft’s “I’m a PC” ad

Bill Gates hates Apple’s “I’m a Mac/I’m a PC” ads. He argues that they exaggerate the difficulties of using Windows and, worse, that they’re mean-spirited, maligning 90 percent of the computer-using public as “dullards” and “klutzes”—folks who don’t belong at the cool table. “I don’t know why [Apple is] acting like it’s superior,” he told Newsweek last year. “I don’t even get it. What are they trying to say? Does honesty matter in these things—or if you’re really cool, that means you get to be a lying person whenever you feel like it? There’s not even the slightest shred of truth to it.”

Gates stepped away from a day-to-day role at Microsoft this summer, but the company’s much-discussed new $300 million marketing campaign follows his critique of the Apple ads. Its core message: Hey, Apple, who are you calling square? Each ad begins with a John Hodgman look-alike—played by Sean Siler, a Microsoft engineer—who declares, “I’m a PC, and I’ve been made into a stereotype.” He’s followed by an international army of Windows users who tell us what makes each of them so special: “I’m a PC, and I’m not what you’d call hip,” says a black scientist with a British accent. There’s a geneticist, a graffiti artist, a shark biologist, a jeans designer, a guy who turns cow manure into fuel, and an astronaut. Gates pops in to say, “I’m a PC, and I wear glasses.” “I wear glasses,” replies a school kid in Africa. The most memorable quip, perhaps unintentionally, comes from mind-body guru Deepak Chopra: “I am a PC and a human being. Not a human doing. Not a human thinking. A human being.”

I don’t think that’s meant to make you laugh. While the ads’ tone is light, they’re self-consciously self-serious. The people in these spots don’t just use PCs, they are P.C.—in contrast to Apple’s white-bread twosome, everything about them is politically, racially, environmentally, and ideologically correct. Where Apple once held up the great men and women of our age for their courage to “Think different,” Microsoft seems to be saying that each of us is special in our own way—special enough that we don’t need software to define us. It’s the sort of message you rarely hear now that Stuart Smalley is off the air, and as a Windows user, I suppose I should be grateful for the affirmation. In reality, I’m slightly embarrassed by the suggestion that I should be doing something great with my machine. I’m a PC, and I spend my days looking for silly things online. Am I using the wrong computer?

Still, the new ads mark a clever marketing turn. Unlike Apple, Microsoft seldom traffics in cultural commentary. Many of its TV ads resemble spots for luxury cars—they feature lots of shots of businessmen getting things done and vague promises of future efficiencies. As a result, most are completely forgettable. There are only two Windows commercials I can call to mind: the launching spot for Windows 95, which was great mostly for its soundtrack (the Stones’ “Start Me Up”), and the recent ill-advised “Mojave Experiment” campaign for Windows Vista, which sought to prove that people can be fooled into loving Microsoft’s software.

What makes the new ads notable, of course, is their swagger. Microsoft has decided to fight Apple on its own turf, taking on the idea that Steve Jobs and co. are better, smarter, and hipper than everyone else. In business, taking a rival’s ads too seriously is a risky gambit. In the 1980s, Coke famously responded to the “Pepsi Challenge” campaign—which showed that people prefer Pepsi in blind taste tests—by changing its formula. New Coke didn’t work out so well. But unlike Coca-Cola, Microsoft needed to respond to Apple. Even if they are mean, Apple’s ads seem to be working. While the Mac’s market share still isn’t close to that of Windows, Macs have seen faster sales growth than PCs in the last year, and Windows Vista, routinely panned in Apple’s ads, is now routinely panned by a lot of people who haven’t used it.

Even if they are a little saccharine, the core message of Microsoft’s ads—that Apple is snooty—should resonate. That’s because Apple is snooty. Here’s a quote from Steve Jobs, circa the mid-1990s: “The only problem with Microsoft is they just have no taste. They have absolutely no taste.” Apple’s corporate identity is built on that mind-set—on its supposed underdog exclusivity, on the idea that choosing a Mac is an act of noble rebellion against the totalitarian IBM-Microsoft regime. Apple has been very successful in cementing this image. I once asked Jason Snell, the editorial director of the company that publishes Macworld magazine, about the difference between people who buy Macs and people who buy Windows. No one buys Windows, he said. There are only Mac people: people who’ve consciously chosen to buy a computer for its differences. Folks who use Windows didn’t choose to use Windows—they don’t make any decision at all. They just took what everyone else had.

The last time I needed a new computer, I made my decision based on price, not operating system: A Dell was the cheapest machine I could find. (I’m not completely a Windows person; as a tech columnist, I switch computers often, and I’ve owned several Macs over the years.) Microsoft’s new ads suggest that my kind of nondecision is OK. Being in the lazy majority is just fine because, hey, you study sharks, and that’s pretty awesome. To be sure, inclusivity is a harder sell than exclusivity. “Hey, we’re conformists!” just isn’t as catchy as, “Hey, we’re special and different!”

But perhaps the Windows hordes can rally around their shared annoyance at Apple’s ads. After two years of seeing Justin Long’s Mac tweak John Hodgman’s PC, don’t you want to grab him by the hoodie and tell him to get a real job? But getting annoyed at Apple isn’t the same as rallying around Windows. As they are, Microsoft’s new ads probably won’t rehabilitate its image. Some adjustments are in order: Make the ads funnier, less serious, and more visually and stylistically appealing. Yes, make them more like the Apple ads. I’d also suggest expanding Gates’ role: Once regarded as a corporate villain, he has morphed, over the years, into a saintly figure, and he makes for a very likable mascot for the firm.

But even though they need work, the new ads mark a good start. Microsoft isn’t facing any sort of emergency. Its market share isn’t plunging. What it needs is a slight adjustment of its image, a new gloss on an aging brand. If it persists with this campaign—goosing Apple for being exclusive, painting itself as not terribly out of touch—it might one day be cool to identify yourself as a PC.