Would Bill Gates have aired Laptop Hunters?May 17, 2009: 9:18 AM ET
I got a thoughtful message last week from Jim Neal, a retired advertising and PR guy who owns a little Apple (AAPL) stock and spends a lot of time following its ups and downs.
Lately he's been trying to make sense of Microsoft's (MSFT) Laptop Hunters TV ads -- the ones where ordinary Americans are given a budget and a wad of cash and set loose in a computer store to buy a PC.
"Microsoft's anti-Apple ads," Neal writes, "are generally considered a response to Apple increasing market share, something generally believed to be at the expense of Windows market share [and] made possible due to the failure of Vista to deliver.
"All that may be true, but the decision was a poor one. I'm guessing it was made by Steve Ballmer, clearly a more visceral, shoot-from-the-hip guy than Bill Gates.
"Would Gates have made the same decision? Possibly not. He may have opted to continue to ignore Apple's inroads and put all his efforts into making sure Windows 7 was all that it could be. With the new campaign, the heat will really be on Microsoft to deliver with Windows 7.
"Gates may well look at the current Microsoft ad campaign as a mistake and much as [the ads] may delight some people in their camp, he'd be correct.
"The moment Microsoft decided to attack Apple, they increased Apple's credibility. That's a given any time you decide to respond to an opponent you previously didn't acknowledge even had right to get into the ring with you.
"Further, any marketing pro looking at the issue would know that (1) Apple's rabid fan base would react strongly and do all it could to poke holes in the validity of the campaign, thereby further raising the level of the debate, and (2) Apple would eventually decide to enter the fray, making the need to produce an iron-clad argument against Apple all the more imperative.
"After all from Apple's perspective, Microsoft has done them a favor by putting to a larger the audience the key question, 'which combination of OS and hardware is better for the user?'
"Anyone who has taken time to dissect the Microsoft ads (as so many have), knows they're full of holes big enough to drive a truck through.
"Microsoft clearly knows this. The ads didn't just accidentally end up being crafted in a way that's quite misleading. The problem for Microsoft is that they really, really felt compelled to take on Apple, so much so they did it even though they didn't have a leg to stand on. Someone promoted the argument that in the current recession, Apple's weakness was price. It's a weakness, but not as big a one as Microsoft wants to believe, not based on Apple's sales.
"Microsoft went with it anyway. They could have just said, 'we're less expensive, so if you don't have much money, we're the only game in town,' but that wasn't enough.
"So they created a false premise, that Apple products are over priced for what they are, that Windows machines give you more for the money, and they manufactured a set of conditions intended to support the false premise.
"Why Microsoft continues to view their market dominance as proof they have a better product is beyond me. It's the type of thinking that can really kill a company in the long run, the type of thinking that leads one to make really stupid decisions.
"It's like Goliath not only stepping into the ring with David, but handing him the stones to put in his sling and urging him to fire away.
"The Ballmer decision, I think, was a knee-jerk reaction not only to Apple's increase in market share, but to concerns raised by its largest clients, Dell (DELL), HP (HPQ), etc. It was done at a time when Microsoft is at its weakest, the very time when they needed to take the high road and ignore Apple. It was a very stupid marketing decision.
"But Ballmer couldn't take it any more. He took the bait, set out by Apple through its Get a Mac ads.
"To paraphrase Star Trek's Captain Kirk: 'Now we've got them right where they want us.'"
ADDENDUM: Neal doesn't mention it, but Bill Gates would be even more embarrassed if he knew what some people are saying about the format of the Microsoft ads. The image of a young woman being handed a fist-full of cash is apparently a visual trope used quite frequently in a very different kind of film. See Laptop: Porn Hunters.
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Below the fold: The latest Laptop Hunters ad.