October 3, 2003 12:14 PM PDT

Geeky Microsoft wants a TV makeover

Microsoft is promoting its Windows products on popular TV shows like Fox's "24" and HBO's "The Wire," airing this fall, as part of the software company's push to transform the PC's image from "geek to sleek."

Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft formed a group last November to gain exposure for Windows products in sports and entertainment programming, according to Andy Ma, Microsoft's program manager for strategic placement.

After some early success with shows like "24" last season, Microsoft funded the marketing team to strike again this year, particularly for the company's new Windows Media Center Edition 2004. The software, an advanced TV application with the PC as its hub, will be featured on upcoming shows of CBS's forensics show "CSI," as well as "24" and "The Wire," among others.

The campaign is part of a push from Microsoft executive Jim Allchin called "cool form factor," which charges the marketing group with buffing the PC's image to a hip shine among consumers, Ma said Tuesday during an interview at the Los Angeles launch of Media Center. Allchin, head of Microsoft's Windows operating systems business, described the software's debut as part of Microsoft's transition from "geek to sleek." He made these remarks at the event, which featured an MTV-like video of young, upwardly mobile consumers using Media Center-powered devices in the living room to watch digital movies and photos and listen to music.

Through the campaign, Microsoft joins other tech companies in a quest to capture the imagination--and dollars--of well-heeled 20- and 30-somethings, who largely see PCs and Microsoft products as business ware rather than stylish gear for home entertainment. Microsoft in particular faces an uphill battle in creating a hip, consumer brand image because it's historically thought of as an enterprise software company.

The move also signals a bigger shift on the part of technology companies to connect with consumers--something not promoted since the dot-com heyday.

Case in point: Hewlett-Packard on Thursday kicked off its largest ad campaign yet, spending more than $300 million to reach consumers with a new, trendy image. Its campaign, "You + HP," is centered on HP's digital photography lineup of cameras and printers. This summer, Gateway tried to glamorize its PCs through product placements in movies such as "Legally Blonde 2."

These computer heavyweights are taking a page from the playbook of Apple Computer, whose products are often relished by the fashionable and the Hollywood tech elite, and which has enjoyed a renaissance with its music innovations, iTunes and the iPod. Apple has been featured on numerous TV shows and movies in years past, a role that plays off Apple's reputation for innovation, cultivated with ad campaigns such as "Think Different." The portable music device iPod was even part of a gift package given away to attendees of the Grammy Awards this year. According to one source, the company also plans another major consumer advertising campaign around the holidays to promote its computer line.

Microsoft in typical fashion will set off a new round of print and online advertisements for its Media Center Edition, but it is also taking a stealth approach to boost its product image. Placing products in TV shows and other entertainment programming has become a more common tactic among marketers as the din of advertising has peaked in recent years and commercial-skipping devices like TiVo have grown popular.

Davie said placement on mass-appeal shows like "24" is an even bigger coup because networks have standards practices in which they screen product placements for relevance and potential conflicts with commercial advertisers. Scrutiny of products is heightened with prime-time programming, he said.

"Computer companies, like any other brand, want their brands shown on the most (relevant programming) because it shows usage. It's a very competitive field and all the companies are vigorously striving for placement," Davie said.

Indeed, HP recently hired Davie-Brown to secure placement for its products on TV shows.

Microsoft and HP's product-placement activities comes at a time when federal regulators are scrutinizing its effect on consumers. Ralph Nader's consumer group, Commercial Alert, last week called for the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission to require networks to disclose embedded advertising on television.

Marketing experts like Davie argue that the practice is legitimate because networks are prohibited from accepting money for product placements, and directors like having actual products in their shows because it makes the programs seem more authentic.

Consumer advocates argue otherwise. TV networks have accepted promises of large commercial advertising contracts in exchange for in-show product placements, according to Gary Ruskin, spokesman for Commercial Alert. For example, OMD and Disney signed a $1 billion deal for commercial advertising that also includes product placements within Disney shows. In one extreme example, Revlon signed a multimillion-dollar deal for commercials with ABC's soap opera "All My Children" to include Revlon in the plot.

Still, brand management experts say Microsoft's strategy is a smart one, particularly as it tries to shake a stodgy corporate image with consumers.

"It's trying to reach newer, younger, hipper audiences that are moving into prime spending years, particularly as these price points come down to a level that makes it competitive for those products to stand out," said Ed Rice, executive director of client services for Interbrand, a brand consulting agency.

 

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