The curious case of the Microsoft-Seinfeld ad

Jerry Seinfeld has a long and storied history as a shill, and an unapologetic one at that. Think back to the 1990’s: care for a Snapple? Then there are the HP commercials, which he used as a promotional vehicle for his own Bee Movie. He’s a proven quantity, for certain.

But for Microsoft to tap into the Seinfeld sparkle to rehabilitate its public image in the face of the relentless onslaught of the “I’m a Mac” commercials? Seems an odd choice.

Granted, we’ve only seen one so far, and we’re assuming they’ll get a little more product-y as the campaign develops. After all, Seinfeld’s inked to a $10 million deal, so we know Microsoft’s in it for the long haul.

For those who haven’t yet seen the spot, I’m not going to rehash its contents, but you can find it here.

So what insight do we gain into the Microsoft marketing strategy from this spot? For starters, it seems clear that Microsoft isn’t trying to beat Apple at its own game, namely appealing to the techno-chic, laid-back hipsters so memorably exemplified by the delightfully smarmy Justin Long. To be fair, on that last descriptive, the humor of the “I’m a Mac” ads goes a long way toward defraying the natural repulsion of Long as a pitchman — not so for Chad from the Alltel ads or Matt Walton, who shills for Optimum’s triple play in the New York market. Apple’s ads are clever, and often very funny.

Right — it seems fair to say that by pairing Seinfeld with Gates Microsoft went a different way. Maybe it’s less about youth than wisdom.

If the first is any indicator, it seems clear that the ads will be intended to play up Gates the icon. Last year Forbes ranked Jerry Seinfeld as the second-highest paid television star behind only Oprah, and his show had been off the air for nearly a decade. Yet in the Microsoft ad we have him on his knees fitting Bill Gates for shoes.

But let’s also remember that Seinfeld is a comedian, albeit one whose humor isn’t very close to what you’d call youthful or edgy. But that’s not Microsoft’s image. There’s nothing in the first Seinfeld spot that’s laugh-out-loud funny. But there are hints, attempts at humor — the Shoe Circus club card is kind of cute, showering in your shoes is typical Seinfeld-wacky, and Microsoft making computers that you can eat like cake is a nice thought. The point I see in this is that Microsoft isn’t trying to cast off its button-down image with a single video spot, but it would like you to understand that it, too, can take it light.

It’s also trying to keep above the fray. It’s hard to imagine taking a more direct shot at the competition than what you find in the “I’m a Mac” ads. You don’t get that from the Seinfeld spot — instead, we see the legendary comedian walking reverently beside the man who seems content to trade on his legacy as the father of the modern software industry.

Then there is the curious mention of the “conquistador.” Is Microsoft suggesting that Bill Gates is buying eponymous shoes? Are we to imagine Bill as the conquistador? Microsoft? The Spanish family noting that, “They run tight” seems like a playful bit of self-deprecation to me. Microsoft’s reputation isn’t that of a loose company.

There’s also a well-worn adage about Microsoft that when it can’t build market share, it tries to buy it. Yahoo comes to mind. So the conquistador bit can’t help but conjure the image of Microsoft as a company whose success is owed to the sword.

More likely it’s a joshing reference to Gates as a world-beater.

But the fact that it can’t be said with certainty is what makes it fun. While many of the “I’m a Mac” ads flirt with brilliance, they’ve got about as much subtlety as a Claymore mine. What a great spectator sport we’ll have if the rest of the spots in the campaign are as oblique as this one.

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