Claire Beale on Advertising: Bill Gates as a comedian – now that's worth watching on YouTube

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Bill Gates is shopping for shoes. He's a size 10, and he likes his leathers on the cheap side. In fact, he's a bone fide, platinum card-carrying member of the Shoe Circus Clown Club.

Anyway, there he is trying on a snug pair of loafers in the "quality shoes at discount prices, why pay more?" Shoe Circus store. And who should walk in but Jerry Seinfeld?

Bill Gates? Wow. Jerry Seinfeld? Hey, fancy seeing you here. Except, let's be honest, guys, it's not exactly a coincidence that Jerry should just happen to pass by Shoe Circus while Bill's getting his size 10s fitted, is it? Nah. Jerry's been slipped $10m to be here, he's being paid to be Bill's pal.

And Bill? Well, he's here for the money, too. And not just the savings on a pair of leather uppers. He's here to tell us that Microsoft is great, that we should use Windows, that we should swell the Microsoft coffers.

Because Jerry and Bill are starring in an advert, an advert for Microsoft. And it's all part of a $300m campaign to make us love the brand more.

There are so many interesting things about this ad. A Bill & Jerry double act, there's a thing. And it works, in a dysfunctional, Seinfeldian way. Seinfeld is Seinfeld and if you're a fan you'll be a fan. "Ever wear clothes in the shower, Bill? You're dressed. And you're clean. Open the door, go back to your business." Bill's face is a picture.

And Bill, pictured below, actually pulls it off. He's drop dead deadpan, does a wonderful job of ripping the piss right out of the man we think of as Bill Gates. Type Bill Gates into YouTube to see the action.

There's virtually no product message in the commercial, branding is minimal. It's light, it's warm, it's human. And when did you ever associate those sorts of words with Microsoft? It's produced by America's – possibly the world's – hottest ad agency, Crispin Porter + Bogusky, the agency that managed to make Burger King cool. No matter that Microsoft's senior vice-president Bill Veghte tries to spoil it all with a very earnest declamation that the campaign is "designed to engage consumers and spark a new conversation about Windows – a conversation that... will always be marked by humour and humanity".

Crucially it's Microsoft's first attempt to play Apple at its own ad game: funny advertising. Mac has cornered the market in IT advertising that raises a smile and kicks the balls of the competition with its Mac (Mr Cool) versus PC (Mr Nerdy) series of commercials, much loved by Mac apologists. Now the PC army has its own ad grenades to lob.

So now there's war waging on techie websites over whether these new Microsoft ads are any good. And dividing genuine advertisement criticism from IT prejudice is almost impossible. Take the following example. There's a thread on one of the blogs about a red sign in the Shoe Circus store that says: "Why pay more". Anti-Microsofters have pointed out the absence of a question mark on the sign, and the way the word "why" is set above and separate from "pay more". The subliminal message, say the Mac-loving conspiracy theorists, is "pay more, spend your money on Microsoft" (don't buy cheap shoes or cheap software).

There are certainly no overt product messages in the ad, and even the brand mentions are cut to the bone. It's played for laughs in the hope that, come the next ad in the campaign, when the sell will be harder, we'll all be interested enough to pay attention. And the campaign just might nudge Microsoft towards some badge credentials and give the brand some cool credibility.

Me, I like the advert. I like Gates more for doing it, for having a little fun. I like Seinfeld, always have. But I love Macs. Nothing here will change that.

From mega celebs in adverts to the death of the celebrity spokesman? Maybe, if Asda's new ad strategy is anything to go by. The value retailer has decided to practice what it preaches to its customers and save a bit of money with its commercials production. It's slashed the star turn in favour of real people.

So out go the sort-of famous names that Asda's used in the past – Coleen Rooney, Julie Walters, Sharon Osbourne – and in come people like us. The new poster campaign pushing Asda's George fashion range stars real-life doctors and nurses as models. George brand director Fiona Lambert says that it's all about the credit crunch. "Our customers are telling us it's time for a change, it feels wrong to spend money on a celebrity endorsement when times are tough and money is tight."

Just to remind you, Asda's US parent Wal Mart made $12.8bn in profits last year.

This advertising game isn't all about making pretty pictures and film to tickle punters into purchasing, you know. There's a whole thriving industry whose job it is to make sure that those pretty pictures and films get seen by the right people in the right place at the right time and for the right price.

Media agencies understand who we are and how we use media, when and where we're most receptive to seeing commercial messages, and then how to arm-wrestle broadcasters, publishers, poster companies and so on into giving up their spots and space for a decent price. The best are now even nudging into content creation and contemplating recreating the old full service agency model from the media function down.

So media remains one of the most powerful disciplines in the communications game. But as the stakes have risen, so have the challenges and over the last couple of weeks one of the media agency giants of old has been brought low.

Initiative Media was once one of London's most formidable media agencies, matching planning flair with a brutal knack for negotiation. Now a long series of global internal politics, poor international leadership, and lack of parental TLC have left the London office vulnerable to attack. Four of its five biggest clients have walked, including last week the £76m-spending Orange account, and its last remaining jewel, Tesco, is rumoured to be talking to other agencies.

Meanwhile, Initiative's UK management line-up seems all too flimsy for the mammoth rebuild challenge that lies ahead. What was once one of the more progressive and innovative media agencies is now fighting to justify its continued existence.

Claire Beale is editor of Campaign