With so much advertising in today’s cluttered, media-controlled world, it is difficult for products to get noticed. More often than not, great products or brands are simply overlooked because they are not capable of grabbing the attention of a viewer that is skeptical about advertising and immune to its grasp. In a single minute, however, Microsoft proves that in an age saturated with signs and cultural meanings, the right approach to an advertisement can still make a brand or product stand out above its competitors. With just one opening question, “What is technology?”, Microsoft is able to appeal to the alienated spectator so critical and cynical towards advertising.
So, what exactly is technology? In today’s age, we are so consumed by technology and its vast reach that we may not even think twice about it. We are spoiled by the everyday advantages it provides: texting on the phone, playing mobile games, watching movies, researching and writing homework assignments, and so on. What Microsoft does with this advertisement that makes it stand out from other ads is that it plays on viewers’ emotions rather than strictly promoting its products and listing their uses and advantages. In other words, this commercial is the perfect example of a transitional ad succeeding in “the age of accelerated meaning”, as Goldman and Papson refer to our ad-saturated era, because it focuses less on a product/brand and more on a symbolic meaning, identity, or lifestyle that brand or product provides. In fact, Microsoft isn’t even mentioned until the very end of the commercial, where it gleams briefly on the screen. As a consumer society, we are expected to know what Microsoft is, and the services and products the multi-billion dollar company provides; so a regurgitation of “buy our product because this is what it does and this is how it is so much better than Company X’s product” wouldn’t really work. Instead, technology–an extension of the products Microsoft provides–is a new prosthetic leg, a soldier being able to witness the birth of his newborn son, or a deaf woman hearing for the first time. Microsoft thus becomes a commodity sign.
The beauty of this ad, and something that adds to its power, is the fact that it appeals to a universal audience. People of all ages, all races, and (almost) all socio-economical backgrounds are exposed to and can benefit from technology. Although for me, technology may only go so far as helping me with my school assignments and keeping in touch with long distance family and friends, to someone else it may provide a life-saving organ transplant or a chance to see the world when otherwise blind. We all make meaning from ads by reading the signs and set codes the ad provides; in this case, the meaning of technology has a different signification for everyone. From a semiotic point of view, the signifiers in this commercial include the distinct pieces of technology that Microsoft can provide, like a prosthetic leg, or a computer to aid in a critical surgery. These things are pretty stable as signifiers. What they signify, however, ranges from person to person and are not identical for all viewers viewing the commercial. They may signify a chance to run again following a fatal accident, or the chance to speak after your muscles have been destroyed by disease. In a world where advertisements and products are trying to make everyone conform, Microsoft is essentially saying its technology allows people to be different and make their own meanings; everyone uses technology, but how you use it and what it means to you is a very personal thing. And at the heart of it all–as the point of the ad states–is Microsoft.
Despite how genuine and wholesome the ad looks externally, it is important to remember that it is ultimately a plea made by Microsoft to the audience to buy more of its products and continue driving the consumer culture, where capital is king. The company almost takes advantage of viewers when harping on the emotional appeal because it leaves most people vulnerable and more open to persuasion (in this case, to invest in a Microsoft product). The ad is ideological, leaving out all the bad technology can do, like being used to create weapons or failing/crashing in times of need. It also assumes that everyone can afford Microsoft technology, which is certainly not the case. People may not even have the technology to view the commercial in the first place.
Clearly, this ad is a product of its time, a period where viewers are jaded by advertising and reluctant to accept what they hear and see at first glance. It wasn’t until the 1960s, following decades of being bombarded by formulaic, text and product heavy advertisements, that advertisers even realized they needed to change the way they promoted their messages and products. Pioneers like William Bernbach made lasting impacts on the way advertising agencies were structured and the types of campaigns they ran. It is because of this “creative revolution” and the restructuring of the content and production of ads that this Microsoft ad is so compelling. It is self-aware and appeals to the cynic because it knows from decades of previous advertising that any other approach just wouldn’t work. It recognizes the alienation and boredom consumers face with traditional advertising, so it chooses to advertise a feeling, a lifestyle, an emotion. As the title implies, it empowers viewers to make their own meaning and improve their own quality of life, with Microsoft of course.