Microsoft's pre-modern message puts a new face on Vista

Over at ZDNet.com, Ed Bott reports a first sighting of Microsoft's eagerly awaited $300 million ad campaign.

Over at ZDNet.com, Ed Bott reports a first sighting of Microsoft's eagerly awaited $300 million ad campaign. Already the cause of much speculation, the consensus is that this will be an enormous attack on what the company considers our mistaken perceptions. The overall message will be that Microsoft is a smart, coherent company with smart, coherent things to sell you – a message that Redmond sees already hitting home when sent by Apple and Google.

Microsoft is quite right to be envious of those clothes, and spot on when it sees its own image falling some way short. And a smart, coherent advertising campaign is an excellent way to get people to reconsider mistaken or outdated ideas: the history of marketing is full of examples where a basically sound but rather jaded entity is repositioned at the forefront of cool and new. Volkswagen, Guinness, the Labour Party: browse Soho's adland bookshops and you'll find cubic metres of glossy, expensive paper explaining how to pull that trick off.

You need engaging, intriguing adverts, which anyone with $300 million to spend can make happen. They set the tone, that you're dealing with an intelligent, interesting company that's worth listening to. They then have to deliver on that promise by linking the products with those ideas – and this is where the challenge really begins.

Microsoft's first blast is not shy of tackling that task head-on. It's there to reposition Vista. The underlying message is forthright and sane: yes, we know we said it was great when we started and yes, we know you've had problems with that. But it's grown up and so have we – so now's the time to lose those old ideas and see what it's really like.

That's clever in many different ways; the implication is that both the product and the company have addressed their shortcomings – Vista, by getting its performance and incompatibilities fixed; Microsoft, by being cool and honest enough to admit its previous over-selling – and so our ideas about them deserve to change too.

It's a shame, then, that the very first message in this opening shot is just plain wrong. The image is perfectly judged; a classic illustration of a Napoleonic-era ship in full sail across a lively sea with wind and sun behind it. But it all goes wonky in the text:"At one point, everyone thought the world was flat. Get the facts about Windows Vista."

Ah, if only. The trouble is, the flat earth belief myth is mostly that – myth. Plenty of Iron Age primitive cultures bought into that idea, but from Aristotle onwards simple observation won the day. Ships disappear beneath the horizon. Constellations change their height above the horizon as you travel north or south. People see further from mountains.

The idea of the medieval flat-earther is entirely a 19th century concoction, a combination of anti-clerical propaganda and popular fiction. Microsoft's advert – set sail for the new world, bravely ignoring everyone else's ignorance – perpetuates that myth. It's setting the scene for the entire campaign – one designed to make Microsoft seem up-to-the-minute, trustworthy and effective – by peddling an outdated chunk of propagandistic fiction.

That wouldn't matter if people still believed it, but it's a fiction past its tell-by date, one that's been substantially debunked by any number of popular science writers. Gershwin got away with it in 1937 when he wrote "They all laughed at Christopher Columbus, when he said the world was round". Today's smart cookie will be more familiar with Carl Sagan's remix: "They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright Brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown."

Oops.

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