Microsoft Takes Aim at Apple Again. Ouch!

For the first time, Microsoft is aggressively going after Apple in a new advertising campaign that will try to undo the damage it suffered from Apple's "I'm a Mac/I'm a PC" ads, from which Microsoft is still trying to recover.

And after watching the first version, while they don't carry the same cache and creativity as those from Apple, they do get an "A" for aggressive. The first spot, which began running during "March Madness," features "Lauren," who's looking for a new laptop with "speed, comfortable keyboard and under a $1,000." The narrator then chimes in, "You find it, you keep it!" She's then shown going into an Apple Mac store, and when she leaves, she says, "For under $1,000, they only have one computer available and that's a 13 inch screen. I would have to double my budget and which isn't feasible." She then laments, "I'm just not cool enough to be a Mac person."

She then finds herself in another retailer, rattling off computer after computer after computer, with everything she's looking for. Hewlett-Packard is singled out. Price? $699. A mysterious hand gives her the cash to pay for the new PC, and she says, "I'm a PC and I got just what I wanted."

These ads, of course, follow the subtler approach from Microsoft featuring toddlers showing us how easy it is to post and edit photos and create slide shows. I mentioned in an earlier post that those ads, while effective, seemed to do more for generating business for Apple than a Windows-based machine since it called attention to the various digital media things people are doing with the computers nowadays; and something that cuts to the core of the Apple message.

The ads follow a long-running theme that Microsoft has failed to gain traction with: the so-called "Apple Tax," or paying a premium for the look and feel of a computer from Apple when other, more capable, competing machines are available at far lower prices. Microsoft might think now would be a better time to try to make this message stick since so much of the "Apple Tax" is tied to the persona of CEO Steve Jobs who continues on his medical leave. That might be a controversial statement to make, but Jobs' attachment to the Apple brand has always helped in keeping that Apple price premium alive. They also come at a time when the country is suffering extreme, economic duress, where price means more today than ever before. And they come a quarter after Apple disclosed that a half million Mac buyers were new to the Mac platform during the holiday shopping season.

Apple isn't commenting. But Microsoft is: "This is an opportunity for the customer to tell their story," says Janelle Poole, Microsoft's consumer PR team spokesperson. "We placed a series of blind ads on Craigslist, posing as a market research company researching laptop purchase decisions. People responded. And they all thought they were participating in a research project. We took them on a half-day shopping trip, filmed their experiences. They're all real people."

"Value is clearly incredibly important to people today," says Poole. "We think of value in terms of cost, but it's also options, and choices available. We think Windows is a better fit for lifestyle and budget."

The ads come from Crispin, Porter + Bogusky, who also brought us those bizarro Bill Gates/Jerry Seinfeld vignettes which were such an overwhelming disaster that Apple itself probably should have offered to foot the campaign's $300 million bill since it did so much to widen the chasm between the two companies. This time around, the ad company strikes a far more effective note by taking on Apple in maybe its most vulnerable spot: Price.

We can argue about Mac's performance versus competitors running Windows. In reality, there really isn't much of a comparison. Macs aren't more expensive simply because they're prettier. They're a better device. But are they THAT much better as far as price is concerned? That's the not-so-gentle question Microsoft is trying to ask in these ads, which, in an economic climate like this one, is could be far more effective than ever before. Still, as effective as they ads might be, Apple could always run a counter-punch, finding "Lauren" a few weeks from now and seeing whether all the headaches of navigating her way through Windows was actually worth that $300 savings. But I digress.

"I like what Microsoft's doing there. They can't beat Apple on the product so they might as well try to beat them on the price," says Piper Jaffray's Gene Munster. "I thought it was a clever tactic."

Clever, and aggressive. Microsoft hitting Apple where it hurts. The question now: After waiting so long, and letting Apple paint Microsoft as the stodgy, loser company for so many years, can a campaign like this one actually do some damage? Very possibly. Very possibly indeed. Questions? Comments?