Microsoft's challenge with its TV ads: Selling a complicated vision

Assuming that people still watch TV, Microsoft's TV ads will be an important part of their Windows 8 and Surface sales campaigns...
Written by Matt Baxter-Reynolds, Contributor

Last night one of my Twitter friends Romit Mehta commented that I would "hate" the new Surface TV ad.

He's not wrong - I do hate it. But only a little.

Advert 1: Surface ad

The ad, called "The Surface Movement" is well named. This ad is fast and upbeat, chock full of energy throughout. It's all about dynamism, sound and movement. 

The whole focus is on togetherness and being social, working in concert to a common goal. That's a key part of the post-PC vision - devices like this are about social interaction, going beyond work and taking a computing device out into the rest of your life. Some of the apps featured on the Start screens are social - StumbleUpon and Rowi make a showing.

Straightaway in this ad we can see what the "Click in" strap-line seen in Surface's urban graffiti ads actually means. It's an onomatopoeic reference to the noise the keyboard makes when attached and the kickstand makes when deployed. It's not anything to do with the mouse. (In fact this ad features no mice at all.)

There are some fantastic moments in this ad - the part where the school kids are riffing on urban street dance holding Surface devices running a boombox app is sublime. (Update: I've been informed that this process is called "krumping", a word so fantastic I could not updating this article and sharing it!)

So why did Romit say that I'd hate the Surface ad? I have a well documented issue with keyboards being associated with the post-PC proposition.

This ad is all about the keyboard. You actually don't see much of Windows 8 at all. You can tell that Surface is not supposed to be a plasticky device. (And the clicking and snapping comes in here too - think about how car manufacturers spend time and money getting the door to "thunk" with a pleasing sound.) It's urban street theatre with Surface devices as a prop. It's immensely well executed and likeable, but there's nothing in it that really sells Surface to me over an iPad if I don't already know that the Surface's keyboard is supposed to be a differentiator.

Advert 2: Surface teaser

I've put this in for comparison - it's not a TV ad. This ad was announced back in June when Surface was announced.

The intention with this piece was to sell the vision of Surface to technologists like me. And it did a great job of that. Months later, I still think of that piece as having fallen through a rent in space-time from a parallel dystopian world. The point of this piece is to tell the world that Surface will be something very different.

It's done that really well. Despite radio silence on pricing and availability (although maybe that will change today?), technologists are still excited about Surface. Another tick in the box for selling the vision.

Advert 3: Windows 8 ad

In this ad, we see much more of what Windows 8 is all about. Microsoft doesn't like describing Windows 8 tablets as "post-PC" devices, preferring instead the phrase "PC Plus". What they'd like you think is that it's a PC that you can take with it in a tablet form factor. This piece has two thrusts - Windows 8 lets you have a convertible laptop tablet you can take with you, and it's also touch-centric.

Like the Surface ad, it's full of energy. There's less focus on social - this is more about people interacting with their devices solo. None of it has a work focus specifically - it's all personal stuff. (Which isn't majorly surprising, these are consumer apps with consumers.)

Where's the mouse? Microsoft has a problem with ditching the keyboard, but has no problem with ditching the mouse. The only way you see people interacting with Windows in this ad is with touch.

It's also a funny advert. 11 seconds in we see a list of birds, and the user is touching the screen to explore. The label on the list? "Aggressive birds", a humorous allegory to "Angry Birds".

We also see a few other Windows 8 features. The gesture-based unlock mechanism (although if you don't know what that is, how you're supposed to understand that through the ad is beyond me).

One thing that is strange about that ad - right at the beginning an old-school clamshell laptop is exploded. I'm not sure what that's saying - it sort of implies that your old hardware won't work, which is crazy. Creates an impression that new hardware is needed.

Finally we end with "Windows reimagined". Which it is.

For me, although I like this ad, it doesn't evoke anything. I found myself carried along with it because of the music and the pace of the visuals, but it doesn't really leave me anywhere.

Where's the desktop?

None of the tablets shown in any of those apps have Windows running in Old Windows desktop mode. It's Windows Store apps all the way. Particularly there's no showing for Office, which you expect Microsoft to try and hammer home as a central part of the proposition seeing as so much of the Windows 8 strategy is centered around delivery of Office.


Microsoft is reportedly spending close to two billion dollars on advertising Windows 8, Windows RT, and Surface. All of it will be wasted if they get the vision wrong.

The challenge Microsoft has is that everything they do in this space has to unglue the potential customers from iPad and move them over to buying a Windows tablet.

One thing I do like about the two real TV ads is that they are a million miles away from Apple's iPad advertising. Apple's approach is always very quiet, inviting you into a "special place" where you can own this this special piece of magic if you're able to save up all your pennies. Apple's stuff is also not very social. It's usually relationship-centric, but it focuses more on the small cohort of people in your inner circle. It's usually about people you love, not both about the people you like and the people you love. Microsoft is trying to make this about everyone you know.

Is it money well spent so far? It's along the right lines, but for me it still needs more tightening up about what Windows 8 is all about and why I should care.

What do you think? Post a comment, or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.

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