Ad casts Gates as cuddly nerd, but will the court really care?

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Neil sedaka had it right. Breaking up is hard to do.

Ask Bill Gates, whose company is targeted for disintegration by the U.S. Department of Justice. Cast by the government as an omnipresent, omnivorous Orwellian info-tyrant, the richest man in America is reduced to begging for mercy from the court of public opinion.

"Twenty-five years ago," Gates says directly into the camera, in a spot from McCann-Erickson/A&L, San Francisco, "My friends and I started with nothing but an idea: that we could harness the power of the PC to improve people's lives.

"Since then it's become a tool that has transformed our economy and had a profound effect on how we live, and how our children learn. Now our goal at Microsoft is to create the next generation of software, to keep innovating and keep improving what we can do for you. The best is yet to come."

Well, that certainly sounds reassuring. Furthermore, when Gates comes on the screen, all soft and smiley and high-pitched, he certainly doesn't seem like Big Brother. What he seems like is the Pillsbury Doughboy -- only with a lot more dough.

"This is an evil monopolist?" America is supposed to wonder.

"This is an economic predator? Do you think he giggles when you press his tummy?"

Which, of course, is the point. The sweater, the grin, the geeky haircut are all contrived to undercut the government's portrayal of a sneering corporate bully using coercive business tactics to push around the competition, the trade and, ultimately, the consumer.

To listen to the Justice Department, you'd think Gates was some sort of criminal mastermind operating from the depths of hollowed-out Mount St. Helens, surrounded by employee slaves in Microsoft jumpsuits and hardhats, hatching a sinister scheme to rule the world. That Bill Gates is tyrannical. Obsessive. Ruthless.

So why does he look like the kid who gets the tar beaten out of him on the school bus? Because that's what Microsoft and McCann want. They want us to see not Big Brother, but nerdy little brother. They want to de-demonize him, humanize him, make us want to hug him.

The text is clearly secondary, but he nonetheless tries to make a case for the righteousness of a heroic, intact Microsoft. And, in a second spot, so does Microsoft President Steve Ballmer:

"When I joined Bill Gates and Microsoft 20 years ago," the shirtsleeved Ballmer says, "the PC was very new. This year, three people buy one every second. Innovation is spreading through our economy. It's creating new jobs, changing our lives and helping children learn.

"Now I'm the president of Microsoft and we're still focused on innovating, delivering value and listening to customers. Technology is fueling America's economy. Our next generation of software will do even more. The best is yet to come."

Ballmer doesn't mention the part about Microsoft strong-arming computer manufacturers and retailers. But never mind. No matter what these spots say or do not say, no matter how well these guys portray Microsoft as fearless pioneers and good citizens of the world, no matter how much they incite libertarian, keep-Big-Government-Off-Our-Backs paranoia, their efforts to look less like Dr. No and more like Mr. Rogers are pretty much wasted.

That's because this case isn't being tried in the court of public opinion. It's being tried in federal court, where they don't do any polling. They concern themselves with findings of fact, findings of law, procedural errors and judicial precedent.

They don't care how cuddly Bill Gates looks, and if you despise monopolistic brute force the best is yet to come.

So what this campaign really aims to do is prepare the consumer for the legal battle and the aftermath, hoping if not for sympathy at least for a minimum of glee as Microsoft becomes a little more micro and a little more soft. As someone once sang:

I beg of you, don't say goodbye.

Can't we give our love another try?

Come on baby, let's start anew.

'Cause breaking up is hard to do.

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