Who do we appreciate? Oh, no.
The answer-in the battle between the beleaguered colossus AOL and the omnivorous colossus Microsoft for our hearts and minds and online subscription dollars-is Microsoft. In the first wave of advertising for the two 8.0 versions of their respective proprietary online services, it is AOL that comes off as the too-big, too-arrogant corporate intruder, and Microsoft as the warm and fuzzy and slightly ditzy friend.
That eccentric friend will, in time, of course, own all of our souls. Because Satan always comes in disguise.
But what a charming one, from McCann-Erickson Worldwide, San Francisco. The launch of MSN 8 uses as its central metaphor a friendly invasion of butterflies-i.e., people dressed in goofy butterfly costumes-to flutter about improving our online lives. One of them stands behind her front door, shoving junk mail through the letter slot right back into the face of the postman, this promoting MSN's state-of-the-art spam filters. Another has a Peter Sellers lookalike shadowing a young mom and her daughter through the dangerous city, shielding the child from violent music, gambling and porn.
The oddball tone is set in the Spielberg-esque intro spot, in which the sudden appearance of gigantic cocoons transfixes the world, until one sac finally tears open and a "butterfly" drops out. Only he's a latter-day Art Carney in an insect suit. "Hey," he says to the entire world, "how's it goin'?" Fabulous.
AOL, by contrast, in several dull ads from Gotham, New York, shows its ubiquitous logo and other visual trademarks projected onto city walls and rural barns, playground blacktops and mountainside treetops. They are illuminated in skyscraper windows, carved into pastures and mowed with precision into the turf of a major-league outfield.
That fairly alarming demonstration of (current) online dominion-from an AOL Time-Warner combine that is fearsome in its own right-is accompanied by the tagline "Get ready." Must we? These days, that sounds more like a warning than a come-on.
The mealy-mouthed copy doesn't help, either. AOL, which became the world's leading online provider by cultivating the lowest common denominator, offers nothing more than a vague promise in a run-on sentence:
"We listened to everything you asked for and designed new AOL 8.0 with better, more personal ways to stay close to the people you care about, the things that matter most and to do it all more easily and more safely.
"It's not just a new version. It's a whole new vision."
Yeah, but vision isn't much good if you can't see it. So far, the advertiser has provided no details, save an equally general claim about improved parental controls. More specifics are scheduled to follow, but at the moment it's all just happy talk-due, apparently, to AOL's strategy of trading less on the goods than on the trusted AOL brand.
Bad idea. Considering Microsoft's advantages in the broadband marketplace, AOL is poorly positioned in this battle to begin with. And don't forget: An invasion of butterflies is still pestilence. Microsoft always eats everything in its path. AOL's only hope to sustain its leadership is to make its brand synonymous not with ubiquity but with superiority.
Ask Netscape what its browser brand is worth. Then, AOL, get ready.