It's early January, and William H. Gates III is in Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show. In the midst of meetings in his hotel room, a football game plays in the background. An ad for IBM comes on--a new one, featuring old French men discussing computers as they stroll along the Seine. Suddenly, Microsoft's chief executive is enthralled. "What's this?" he demands, jacking
up the volume to hear the French dialogue, loosely translated on the screen in English subtitles. "It looks pretty cool."
Comment a? The boy wonder of the software biz finding something--anything--cool about IBM? Don't be shocked. Big Blue's latest commercials really are pretty hip. And with computer companies increasingly targeting sales to the home, IBM isn't the only one with a raft of trendy new ads aimed at a mass audience. Digital Equipment Corp. launched new MTV-like commercials on Thanksgiving, and Microsoft is pouring $100 million into an offbeat TV campaign of its own.
BUMMER, NON? Not all computer companies are aping the strategy. Apple Computer Inc.'s new 30-minute infomercial and Compaq Computer Corp.'s current campaign focus on how computers can solve real-life situations without any added ambience. But, says Karen R. Ficker, an analyst at Wasserstein Perella & Co.: "Across the board, you see a change in the way that computer companies want to be perceived by the public."
The new look for advertising by IBM, DEC, and Microsoft is no accident: All three have hired new agencies to revamp their images. Last August, DEC awarded its account to DDB Needham Worldwide, dropping several agencies including Ciociola & Co. and Ketchum Advertising. Microsoft last June hired Wieden & Kennedy, the Portland (Ore.) firm that created Nike's "Just Do It!" campaign. The IBM ads are the start of a new worldwide campaign by Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide Inc., which pulled off a major coup last year when it wrested the $400 million-to-$500 million IBM account away from some 40 other agencies. Says Matthew Ross, the Ogilvy & Mather senior vice-president who handles the IBM account: "We want to demonstrate to people that IBM is more approachable and human than they thought."
What are the ads like? In the commercial that Gates saw, the French-speaking senior citizen gripes to his friend that his hard drive is "maxed out"; the friend finds that a "bummer" but reassures him that IBM is working on a new way of using lasers to store 10 times more data. "Cool," the first man replies. Another commercial in the series features a group of nuns walking in a Prague convent, with one complaining that her PC needs a new operating system. In a dig at Microsoft, she says she is waiting for Chicago, but that Microsoft's new operating system keeps getting delayed. A fellow nun tells her that she was just reading about the new OS/2 Warp from IBM in Wired magazine. Realizing this might give her access to the Internet, the nun's face lights up, and she replies: "I'm dying to surf the net." A third scenario takes place in a Moroccan souk.
PAPER CUT. Microsoft's new ads also have an international flair. One intersperses images of various software programs with flashes of people from different cultures. In another, a boss throws
a business report down a spiral staircase. Message: Software beats paper.
DEC's ads, which have the look and beat of music videos, may represent the biggest departure from traditional computer advertising. The spots are set to original rock music, and bright flashing lights complement racing images. One flashes several images of mass destruction such as fires and floods and in big block letters: "HELL HAS OUR PHONE NUMBER." This format is repeated in a number of versions of the commercials, which aired from Thanksgiving to New Year's and will reappear in February.
Cool, for sure. The big question now: Does cool sell computers?