Sleight of Hand

Microsoft is trying to make you forget about it's nerdy CEO through a multimillion-dollar sleight of hand.

A watershed moment (or at least 60 seconds) in technology advertising occurred in 1984 with Chiat/Day's ad for Apple's Macintosh. Titled "1984," it featured a lithe runner who hurls a hammer, shattering an enormous screen showing the Big Brotheresque ruler of an unnamed corporate state. It cost a measly $400,000, was shown once, and turned on the simple premise that a Macintosh offered an alternative to the bland-yet-menacing IBM. In 1994, the ad firm Wieden & Kennedy created "Anthem" for Microsoft, which also conflated operating systems and political freedoms, but suggested that Microsoft's global domination made it the ideal company for expressing yourself. "The stuff we make is powerful. It makes you powerful," a voice intoned, before introducing the now ubiquitous interrogative: "Where do you want to go today?"

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Three years and $300 million later, as Microsoft gears up to launch Windows 98, its success presents the very dilemma foreshadowed in 1994 by Liz King, then Microsoft's director of corporate marketing. "We're a leader, but we don't want it to sound as if we're in charge and you're along for the ride," she told the New York Times.

Microsoft's monopolistic hold on the industry means, for the most part, people interact with it not because they want to, but because they have to. That a growing chorus of criticism has yet to make an impact on Microsoft's success suggests a miraculous image makeover.

It began a few months prior to the October 1994 blitz, after Ogilvy & Mather resigned from the Microsoft account without solving its biggest problem. "The first thing that is rotten with Microsoft is the core brand-mainly Bill Gates himself," says graphic designer Erik Adigard, who has consulted for Microsoft. It's hard to appear approachable, elaborates Adweek's advertising critic Debra Goldman, when your company is symbolized by "this guy who is like a robber baron."

Microsoft's decision to do something about its persistent image problem is striking in an industry where about 70 percent of the money spent on advertising goes to promoting specific products. But Microsoft has 90 percent of its market cornered, and it generally doesn't compete with upstarts; it buys them. Under these circumstances, Microsoft's goal isn't sales, it's spin control.

So Microsoft turned to Wieden & Kennedy, best known for transforming Nike from a shoe company into a cultish lifestyle brand so powerful that, in many ads, only the Nike "swoosh" identifies the message as a commercial. By selecting Wieden & Kennedy, Microsoft counted on that ability to turn billion-dollar enterprises into vessels of identity, or, as Ben Evans, general manager of Microsoft's marketing, puts it: "The objective of the Microsoft brand campaign is to bring the brand to life for all audiences.... This is first achieved by raising the overall awareness of the Microsoft brand. We then fill the brand with meaning."

Microsoft wanted Wieden & Kennedy to make it cool. That meant, Adigard speculates, that Microsoft wanted Wieden & Kennedy to excise the negative aspects of the company's image, meaning "eliminate the geek from it." Microsoft started by turning its attention almost exclusively to nonbusiness users. In the past four years, the company has invested 75 percent of its advertising in "consumer" advertising over trade, and the ads, especially in the campaign's early stages, have all but neglected to identify Microsoft as a high-tech company.

The evolution of Microsoft's advertising relationship with Wired, the magazine that presents technology as a lifestyle accessory, illustrates the extent of its makeover. In 1994, Microsoft ran one ad in Wired-and that was to recruit programmers, not users. Microsoft took out 9.8 pages of ads in 1995, 25 in 1996, and 39 in 1997. These ads, unlike the first, which solicited aspiring techies interested in "refining the potentials of wireless computing," take their place among Gap-personas and scotch-swilling swells. In one ad, the additional features of Windows 95 are described as "tons of other cool stuff."

Wieden & Kennedy has succeeded in emptying the brand of its main liability: Gates. But emptying the brand of its product may backfire. In moving away from technology, the early Microsoft ads became "fey and arch," says Leslie Savan, advertising critic for the Village Voice. Even Dan Wieden, the agency's co-founder, told Adweek that, unlike Nike's over-the-top ads, which in 1996 included a vomiting Olympic marathoner, "there's not a lot of obvious, dramatic footage for you to capitalize on. There's not a lot of cinematic 'Wow.'"

Of course an agency used to dealing in dynamic messages would be stumped by the deskbound PC environment. The ads' lack of emphasis on computers made for an uneasy tension between the agency and Microsoft, and by early 1996 Wieden & Kennedy began to try, says Adigard, "to creatively understand what it means for people to use computers...in the '90s."

"There must have been a moment of crisis," he adds. "Either they were feeling insecure or Microsoft was putting pressure on them" to come up with a more cohesive campaign. "They didn't really know what they were doing. The idea was to do a big brainstorming [session] and come up with a presentation to Microsoft that was really, really a new big idea," he says.

Wieden & Kennedy mined the Nike account for its top creatives, Bob Moore and Michael Prieve, in an attempt to add an important element to the campaign—a symbol.

What they came up with debuted in late 1996, backed, like the earlier ads, by a $100 million budget and no particular product, but something they thought far more promising: the Hand.

When it appeared on a billboard in the heart of Multimedia Gulch, a neighborhood of Web designers and software developers in downtown San Francisco, it wasn't long before pranksters made an artistic correction, shifting the raised digit from the index finger to the middle one. But the Hand gave Microsoft its first creative breakthrough. The Hand would be its symbol of interconnectivity, of the future, of human agency, of all the positive things that one could associate with computing. The Hand is Microsoft's swoosh.

As silly as the Hand is, Microsoft is poised to become the Nike of the information age. Early signs indicate success: In 1997 a Louis Harris poll cited Microsoft as the company Americans think of most highly, up from No. 4 in 1996.

The public's admiration for Microsoft no doubt stems from sheer envy, as much as from Microsoft's omnipresence. But it might also flow from gratitude. As Goldman says, the "irony of the growth of the computer world in general is that in order for it to function, you have to have one standard." Microsoft provides—and enforces—that one standard. Forty years ago, she observes, "people would consider this the government's job." So of course technology ad campaigns have become more like the political propaganda they once parodied; Microsoft's ads exist not to convince us to buy something new, but to keep us from complaining about the way things are.

Get Mother Jones by Email - Free. Like what you're reading? Get the best of MoJo three times a week.