Microsoft's bait-and-switch campaign for Vista, the "Mojave Experiment," is baffling. I was dumbstruck when I first saw it earlier this week, and I continue to be dumbstruck. Why base a campaign around the core assumption that everyone thinks your product sucks, and that people who have felt wronged by Vista are ignorant fools? Of course, spinning perceived negatives into positives is why advertising exists in the first place, but something about this campaign is different. Very different. And it doesn't become immediately apparent what that is until you compare it to similar instances in advertising's hall-of-shame, filled with other companies that have pulled similar full-frontal mea culpas. Here, some more extreme "OMG we suck" ads, and how advertising experts compare them to Microsoft's new ads.
Lee Iacocca - Chrysler - 1984
Any ad that has the company's CEO starting things off saying, "Well, when you've been kicked in the head like we have..." is going to get attention. After taking a US$1.5 billion bailout from the government, Chrysler brought in Lee Iacocca from Ford to right the ship. There are more homespun self-deprecating zingers than you can keep up with. Other spots even featured Iacocca's famous "If you find a better car, buy it" tagline—basically hard-arse sarcasm aimed at potential customers. Hyping new and future cars as being "not bad for a company that had one foot in the grave" is honest to the point of self-destruction, but it's promising improvements.
"They tried to show this charismatic leadership that was going to fix it all, and Iococca himself got out there and he was really, really good at it. People actually were proposing he run for president after these," says Bob Thompson, a professor of media studies at Syracuse. Apparently it's too bad for Microsoft that the Mojave spots don't feature a screaming Ballmer.
GTE Telephone, Los Angeles, 1970
GTE telephone service in Los Angeles in the 1970s was apparently so shitty that the company ran an ad campaign that got written up in Time Magazine for its zaniness:
The neat middle-aged executive peers out from the television screen. "Hello," he says, his face crinkling into a sheepish grin. "I'm from General Telephone." Boos and hisses explode off-camera. "Now, I'm aware that General Telephone provides less than adequate service." Plop. A rotten tomato slides down his chin. "But we're spending $200 million in California this year on improving our service." He is hit with an egg. "Cables, switches, personnel, everything." A cream pie splatters over his face. "Thank you for your patience," he mumbles through the goo.
The spots were put together by DDB, the mega-firm responsible for the Volkswagen "Lemon" campaign that is generally regarded as the best ad of all time. It also used some reverse-psychology voodoo, but in the more traditional sense of treating perceived negatives as positives.
That's a Saturn? - 2006
Car companies are great at this. Taking the conception of a Saturn as a prissy, gutless nerdmobile and moving it up front here obviously makes today's model seem all the more shockingly stunning. Mmm hmm. And of course, on the same theme, we all remember this tune:
Sure, Fords used to suck, but have you driven one....lately?
Prudential Securities - 1994
Facing a huge fraud scandal, Prudential's comeback "Straight Talk" campaign is a perfect example of corporate damage control, using chief exec Hardwick Simmons (yes, real name) in a no-frills admission of guilt. NY Times says:
The campaign, by Deutsch/Dworin Inc. in New York, is imbued with cues intended to underscore the "straight talk" theme. The television commercials and print advertisements, which eschew celebrity endorsers, feature Prudential employees, from brokers to Mr. Simmons, who is called by his nickname, Wick.
The campaign also rejects slick, glitzy production values, using instead a minimalist approach: black-and-white photography, seemingly unrehearsed remarks read off note paper and directed at the camera.
"I'm straight with people and I expect the same," Mr. Simmons says in one commercial, "from my brokers to my kids." In a print version, in which frank statements are superimposed over his photograph so that he stands behind them — get it? — he declares straight talk "also means facing up to hard issues — admitting mistakes and fixing them."
Avis - We Try Harder - 1962
And why do they try harder? Because they're #2. In competition with #1 Hertz, Avis cranked on all the positives that being the cute, hard-working underdog can bring. And they're using the same tagline to this day.
"This was an incredibly effective, incredibly powerful campaign," says Thompson. They acknowledged that they were number two and used it as an asset to sell. We're going to be running faster, trying harder, etc. Turned a liability into a huge asset."
All of these campaigns are about putting the dark past behind us in exchange for a shiny next generation of new and improved products and services. But with Vista, where is the new product? What's going to replace users' frustrations? Telling them they're too stupid to cut through all the bad Vista press and realise what a gem they've been missing out on will not make people feel great about themselves or the future of Windows.
"It is a useless exercise to take an unchanged product and try to persuade people that their perceptions are wrong. Vista has a bad reputation because it doesn't work well. It is an earned reputation, the only way to address it...is to change," says Bob Garfield, an advertising journalist who writes for Ad Age and other publications. "I haven't seen anyone I can think of try to do this with a discrete product, as opposed to a service."
The intended audience here is obviously novice users. But novice users aren't dumb users. The first question this campaign pops into those peoples' heads is, "Why have so many people said that Vista sucks?" They're going to research it. They're going to find out. A trick like Mojave isn't going to fool them.
Before the comments erupt into flames, it should be obvious that this is not about Vista sucking or not, but whether the newest Vista ads suck or not. Should a huge, important company have thought twice before doing something so kamikaze-like? Desperation calls for desperate measures, but unfortunately for Microsoft, kamikazes are rarely on the winning side.
There are surely way more instances of this happening—shoot any more great "we suck" ads in the comments.
[Big thanks to Ray at Jalopnik, Bob Garfield, Prof. Bob Thompson, Kipp Cheng at AAAA and Prof. Don Sexton at Columbia Business School]