Microsoft and the marketing of resentment

Let me say right up front: I am not particularly cool. I was in marching band in high school. I like Star Trek. My hobbies include editing Wikipedia and looking for obscure subway maps on the Internet. If my clothes exhibit any particular fashion sense, that should be entirely credited to my wife, who is cool (and yet married me anyway).

I bring this up because Microsoft has launched the latest in a somewhat meandering series of ad campaigns, which you can see below:

<a href="" target="_new" title="Laptop Hunters $1000 – Lauren Gets an HP Pavilion">Video: Laptop Hunters $1000 – Lauren Gets an HP Pavilion</a>

Now, I actually think this ad is pretty well done. Lauren wants a 17-inch notebook for less than $1,000, goes into an Apple store, notes that all she could get there for that money is a 13-inch screen and that she'd have to double her budget to get what she wants. She then goes into some other store (looks to be a Staples-type place) that sells Windows machines, finds a 17-inch HP laptop for $700, joy ensues. To be fair, as near as I can tell from some customization on HP's site, the laptop she bought is (other than the screen) about on par with a midrange Macbook rather than a 17-inch Macbook Pro, but still: she found the computer she wanted for half the price she'd pay for even for that smaller-screened Mac. Point made.

Except: around halfway through the ad, after discussing how pricey the Mac is, she says, "I'm just not cool enough to be a Mac person." Which is a pretty fascinating thing to say. Because there's no evidence that a Mac Genius judged her music collection or something inside that Apple Store; she just didn't want to pay more for OS X (which, as I noted earlier this week, is really what you get for that price difference). So why didn't she say "I don't want to pay more for a Mac" or "I'm just not wealthy enough to be a Mac person?" Why bring "cool" into it at all?

It's a fairly straightforward bit of marketing jujitsu. Although nobody checked my cool quotient when I ordered my Macbook, it's undeniable that the Apple marketing machine pushes a pretty hip image. Microsoft could try to work on being cool itself, but this is hard for an omnipresent establishment company to do. Paradoxically, though, it's relatively easy for a company in that position to turn Apple's cool marketing on its head and present itself as a dorky underdog -- an underdog with 90 percent market share, but an underdog nonetheless. I also think there's a certain amount of class anxiety endemic to American society tied up the equating of "I can't afford this computer" with "I'm not cool enough." Because Americans are taught that anyone can be rich, those who aren't (which is most of us, after all) have a hard time saying that they aren't; "cool," a mystical, hard-to-define attribute that all of us feel far from now and then, is a good substitute concept for "well-off."

Still, it adds a sour note, a little dash of resentment and defensiveness, to the ad. And really, it's baffling to me that a company that controls 90 percent of the market seems so eager to dwell and fume on how it's not as "cool" as the other 10 percent -- or to encourage its customers to do so, at least.

I'd like to add that Lauren, with her kicky boots and hipster cat's-eye glasses, certainly looks pretty cool to me. (You don't think they put actual non-cool people on TV, do you?) I'd also like to add, for what it's worth, that while I'm the Mac nerd in the family, my cool wife is more than happy to plug along on a Thinkpad running Windows XP. Make of that what you will.

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