Dear Microsoft: Cheryl’s ad will not make me buy a new computer

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When you have no cable and seven television channels, your threshold for irritating ads is considerably lower than that of the average person.

This week, I’m irritated by Microsoft’s Windows 7 commercial featuring Cheryl the Technopeasant:

Here’s my list of beefs with this ad:

  • Cheryl isn’t pissed that a team of people broke into her house, messed with her stuff and renovated her living room. Was she expecting a computer store to appear in her house?
  • Why is Microsoft conducting what amounts to a home invasion to sell this woman a computer? Is she particularly influential? Does she have zillions of Twitter followers?
  • Is this really just Apple store envy? (“Oh yeah, Apple? Think you care about your customers? We’ll build an IKEA-esque Microsoft store in someone’s house. SNAP!”)
  • Is there any universe in which you could kick Microsoft employees out of your home-turned-retail space without buying a computer? (“Um, thanks for coming, guys, but I have what I need. Can you take down the fake walls and shelves now? I need a nap.”)
  • Why does Cheryl use her computer? Why doesn’t she think she needs to update it beyond her obvious obligations to the Western industrial complex where technology profit models assume people must continually replace their equipment with the latest and greatest regardless of whether that actually makes sense?
  • What is Cheryl missing beyond gimmicks? The computers she handles are attractive and light weight, but that doesn’t mean much if she uses her computer at a desk. Sales Guy drops “500 GB hard drive” like it should mean something to her. Clearly, it does not. (In the comments, Techie Mike observed that he thinks the laptop might actually be a downgrade to the desktop machine Cheryl owns. See his comment below for details.)
  • Beyond Cheryl’s unexplored reference to the “DVR thing” (digital video recorder for those who don’t speak fluent geek), the value-add for upgrading is obscure. Why is finally being “up to date” better for Cheryl or anyone who isn’t a Microsoft shareholder?

Cheryl is just one example from the Personal PC store campaign (which appears to feature only middle-aged women, those paragons of household spending). It is the latest in Microsoft’s efforts to change the advertising conversation about its products — a conversation that has, in recent years, largely been driven by Apple’s ads.

Apple’s “I’m a Mac/I’m a PC” commercials, which ran from 2006 to 2010, depict Microsoft products and the people who use them as hopelessly out of touch. Here’s one example that highlights a PC computer’s greater susceptibility to viruses:

Cleverly, the campaign makes the PC character appealing through John Hodgman’s casting and his charisma in the role. It’s hard to view the ads as mean-spirited when PC’s bumbling irrelevance is, as The Consumerist has noted, infinitely more appealing than the Mac character’s smugness — I’ll come back to the role of smugness in Apple’s advertising in a moment.

In the past, Microsoft has had greater success confronting these stereotypes head-on. When Windows 7 first launched, Microsoft’s “I’m a PC and Windows 7 was my idea” referenced the Apple campaign while changing the conversation. Instead of actors, “real” people identified themselves as PCs and aired usability grievances with Microsoft employees:

Notice how many times the Microsoft folks acknowledge that they’re listening? And then they say “Thank you” at the end? That’s how good customer relations is done (the videos would be even better if they integrated real-time complaints from real people sent through social media channels, but we must not be greedy).

Other ads in the series pick up on this idea by addressing specific problems, such as this one featuring Crystal and the simplified task bar:

This one with Mimi asking for parental controls to monitor her kids’ surfing is also good:

The humour is nice, as is the subtle quirk in which the person identifying the software problem is played by a more attractive person at the moment in which they envision the better product. Best of all, the ads in this series demonstrate the new feature and how it makes the product better.

That’s how you change the conversation — by engaging with your customers, acknowledging problems, working to overcome said problems, and creating better stuff.

The Cheryl ad fails because Microsoft’s strategy team forgot the crucial ingredient in Apple’s success.

Beyond their smugness and hipness and perfectly chosen musical soundtracks, Apple commercials foreground the usability of their products. They explain AND demonstrate how things like the Ipad can improve your day-to-day life (to their way of thinking, anyway):

You can dislike Apple’s aesthetic and condescension, but you can’t refute their pragmatism. Or their ability to convey complex information simply and efficiently. (For a great list of Apple commercials through the years, check out the Advertising Age’s retrospective).

So here’s hoping when it’s time to roll out the Windows 8 commercials, Microsoft comes up with ads that feature less gimmicky setups and more substance.

They can certainly do better than Cheryl.