Hype Sheet: Dell Shows Signs of Life

The Pitch Who spiked the punch at Dell's ad agency (the mysterious Mother New York)? As the Flaming Lips' relentlessly awesome "The W.A.N.D." cranks on the soundtrack, images of LSD-tinged Americana fly by—a lime-green BBQ, a playboy curling pink dumbells, a sunglassed female guitarist incongruously strolling by a collection of teddy bears. Once we get to the elderly couple and their Inspiron 1420-equipped granddaughter tooling around the desert in a Pacer, we get our first spec porn—a shout-out to the new laptops' "long-range wireless" (a reference to the optional EV-DO card?). After a hippie kung-fu dude and a couple of raincoated old salts put in appearances, the ad ends with a truly memorable visual: a geek cruising about the 'hood in a robot that looks like a mod of ED-209. An eye-catching commercial, no doubt. But can this campaign rescue struggling Dell from its recent free-fall?Rip-Off Of Spike Jonze's early music-video work, with a liberal dose of Wes Anderson whimsy thrown in for good measure. Other than that, props for the originality.

The Spin Like HP, the star of last week's Hype Sheet, Dell is in the midst of a rebranding project. Having awoken to the fact that it can no longer compete on price alone, the company is now taking a page from the Acer playbook and focusing on laptop aesthetics. The big pitch with the Inspiron 1420s is that they come in myriad colors; it took me a few views of this ad to realize that the featured laptops invariably match their surroundings, color-wise. (I especially like the sailors and their raincoat-yellow PC.) Case color may seem like a pretty weak spec to be harping on, but think about what Dell has to overcome right now—a reputation for making drab boxes that mark their owners as computing neophytes. On top of that, the Flaming Lips song is the real star of this ad—nothing says "effortless cool" quite like the greatest band to ever come out of Oklahoma City. What Michael Dell wouldn't give for the young'uns to think the same of his eponymous PCs.

Counterspin The conventional wisdom is that price wars plus a lack of retail presence are what got Dell into its current bind. (Gartner recently estimated Dell's U.S. market share at 29.9 percent, down nearly six points over the last year.) But the rot seems deeper than that, which makes the Inspiron 1420 play seem a little insubstantial. Sure, colors are great, and it's nice to know that Dell's brain trust gets that laptop consumers are a more culturally savvy lot than they're often given credit for. But most of the complaints I've heard about Dell are about service and bait-and-switch tactics, not aesthetics and specs. How does this admirably creative campaign address those concerns? It doesn't, of course—it just hopes that you'll come back to Dell once the brand's uncool stigma has been banished.

Takeaway The big news 'round Dell these days is that its founder is back at the everyday helm, after besieged CEO Kevin Rollins got elbowed out in January. So think of this campaign as Michael Dell's personal vision of how he'll rescue his baby. Mike's obviously a much cooler cat than Rollins, who probably thought those intolerable "Dude, you're getting a Dell!" ads were pure genius. And shedding the company's utilitarian rep is certainly part of the puzzle. But you've got to wonder how the billionaire Dell is going to address the deeper problems in his once and future kingdom, starting with customer relations. Stories like this one, about aggrieved folks still waiting for their XPS M1330s, are all-too-common, and the company has done a pitiful job of maintaining its call centers' standards. (If you're a Dell customer who's having problems with a Vista upgrade, may the gods be with ye.) It seems like Dell needs to rebuild trust even more than it needs to glam up its staid image.

Hype-O-Meter 8 (out of 10). The Flaming Lips song is a masterstroke, if only because you can't get it out of your head for a good 10 to 12hours (or even longer). And how can you hate on a commercial that features an honest-to-goodness Pacer? But if case colors are all Dell has to differentiate itself in the mid-range laptops market, it'll be a while before they climb out of the hole. This is a step in the right direction, but a baby step.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for both The New York Times and Slate. His Hype Sheet column appears every Thursday on Gizmodo.

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