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A Fly on the Wall in Cupertino – Microsoft’s iPhone Parody Ads

September 13, 2013
A screenshot from Microsoft’s “A Fly on the Wall in Cupertino” short-lived video campaign.

A screenshot from Microsoft’s “A Fly on the Wall in Cupertino” short-lived video campaign.

“[This] was intended to be a light-hearted poke at our friends from Cupertino. But it was off the mark, and we’ve decided to pull it down.” Microsoft Corp.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been involved in marketing discussions where “create a viral video” was casually added to the project list. It always reminds me of an old Steve Martin joke that starts out something like, “I can show you how to make a $1 million and pay no taxes! First, make a million dollars, then…” Wait a second buddy, what was that first step again?..

Creating a viral video is not unlike catching lightening in a jar – there are some basic rules. First, wear plenty of protective clothing. Then, like Steve Martin’s million, come up with an incredible idea. It has to be memorable, better yet, unforgettable. If not, it should at least be funny. It also has to get to the point within seconds and feel authentic, “real” in the sense that you are not trying to trick the viewer. The production itself doesn’t have to be complex, in fact simple and straightforward is usually best.

The videos that Microsoft posted today (Friday the 13th, yikes!), and abruptly deleted about three hours later, were clearly designed to “go viral.” The campaign looked to be a quick and dirty response to Apple’s iPhone 5s and 5c announcements earlier in the week. In a series of short videos entitled, “A Fly on the Wall in Cupertino,” imaginary Apple employees are depicted selling the Senior VP of Design, Sir Jony Ive and CEO, Tim Cook (both shown from the back) on the newest iPhone innovations. I thought the videos were mildly amusing, but I have to admit to some confusion – was one of those execs supposed to be Steve Jobs? Shown from behind with thinning dark hair, wearing a trademark dark sweatshirt, and (sorry to whomever stood in for the role) looking rather gaunt and sickly, it certainly could have been. On my second viewing I clearly heard him referred to as “T” – indicating the he was supposed to be Tim Cook. Steve Jobs died nearly two years ago, so unless they were pitching these ideas to him in heaven it wouldn’t make much sense. But no less a bastion of journalistic integrity than the NY Daily News mistook him for Steve Jobs as did many others judging from comments posted online. Given that impression I can see why some netizens considered the parody in bad taste.

In my view this is the reason the ads were so poorly received. Yes, it would have helped if they were funnier, but this element of chicanery tainted the message and violated one of the basic rules of viral videos. No, not the one about wearing protective clothing; the rule about being authentic and “honest/real” with your viewers. Add to that the notorious loyalty of the Apple fan base and Microsoft’s “head fake” went too far.

Knowing the people involved in creating, or at least at some point approving, this campaign I am inclined to give Microsoft the benefit of the doubt here. They were trying for an approximation of the back of Tim Cook’s head. But I can see why many people thought that Microsoft was at best being deliberately ambiguous; and at worst being downright nasty.

The irony of course is that in the end Microsoft created a viral phenomenon today and these videos will probably be viewed more than they could have hoped for. Removing them from the official Microsoft YouTube site and Facebook page cuts off a large potential audience, but “truth will out” (The Merchant of Venice, Act II, scene ii) and those clever enough (like you) will be able to find them mirrored elsewhere on the internet. Like here, while they last. My apologies for the obnoxious ads overlying the video (they are not mine) – be careful when you close them as you might inadvertently launch additional videos or ads.

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Pictures speak louder than words. The man in the middle was identified in the video as “T” – indicating he was supposed to be Tim Cook. You decide. On the left is a photo of Jobs. On the right is a photo of the current Apple CEO, Cook. The back of whose head is in the middle?

Steve Jobs and Tim Cook photos are from the Apple website. The guy in the middle is a screenshot from the Microsoft “A Fly on the Wall in Cupertino” video.

Steve Jobs and Tim Cook photos are from the Apple website. The guy in the middle is a screenshot from the Microsoft “A Fly on the Wall in Cupertino” video.

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