By Brendan I. Koerner
The Pitch What first seems to be a field of rectangular tombstones turns out to be a field of Zunes, tiered upwards like stadium seats. One of the players flickers to life, apparently transmitting MIMS' "This Is Why I'm Hot (Rock Mix") to a neighbor. As the headbanging tune kicks in, the Zunes all flare to life, MIMS' mug splashed across their gorgeous screens. The Zunes then show off their FM tuning capability, followed by a couple of cartoon characters gently bumping heads—a take on the Dragonball Z Fusion Dance. The camera pulls back to reveal a couple of teenage girls on a Zune screen—a demo of its digicam capabilities. And, hey, is that the cover art for the new Queens of the Stone Age album I glimpse in the corner? Too late—the frenetic ad's over, and you've got an inane chorus ("This is why I ROCK!") stuck in your brain—potentially forever, I'm afraid.
Rip-Off Of The structural resemblance to the classic iPod spots is surely no accident: the lack of narration, the thumping soundtrack, the accent on arresting colors. The major difference, of course, is that the Apple ads center on those dancing silhouettes; the iPod itself is almost a footnote. The strategy's pretty different in Zuneworld: as the laggard in the portable media space, Microsoft is desperate to prove its player's technological superiority. So this commercial is basically a checklist of why the Zune might be better than its iconic rival—wireless sharing, radio, and digicam functionality.
The Spin Think Pepsi's marketing message, circa 1989: yes, we're number two, but if you judged products completely on their merits, we definitely deserve the top slot. Given that sharing was initially seen as the Zune's big advantage over the iPod, it's curious to see how much of this ad focuses on the player's screen quality; Microsoft knows that you'll be watching the hit shows of, say, 2014 on portable devices, so wants to establish its LCD bona fides sooner rather than later. The money shot in the ad is the cartoon head bump, which lets the Zune show off its video prowess.
Counter-Spin Thirty seconds is a pretty brief time in which to cram so many ideas, isn't it? The opening section, touting the Zune's sharing, rushes by so swiftly that a neophyte will be hard-pressed to understand what's up. And that shot of the teen BFFs? Didn't even notice it until my fifth or sixth viewing—although, given the ad's heavy rotation during the NBA playoffs, that only took about two days. And I've got to question the music choice. The beauty of the iPod ads has been their ability to dredge up off-the-chart gems—the one with the Les Rythmes Digitales cut is a personal favorite. Featuring a rock mix of a chart-topping hip-hop confection? Too eager to please, and thus too vanilla.
Takeaway Okay, so the Zune's sales figures may have been slightly exaggerated. But you can't deny that, after some initial missteps, the player is hanging in there against the iPod; it's not every gadget that inspires a gelatinous nerd to get a tattoo, after all. And griping about the iPod's lackluster battery life and random disk failures continues apace. So now's definitely the time for Microsoft to press forward. But will the company regret downplaying the Zune's sharing feature? That seems to be what makes the device unique, and it was the centerpiece of the original marketing campaign—the one built around the head-scratching slogan "Welcome to the Social". Judging by this latest ad, the emphasis now seems to be more on the LCD quality than anything else; the word "sharing" is never mentioned, not even in the quick text summary towards the end. Perhaps those pesky three-play sharing limits have rubbed consumers the wrong way?
Hype-O-Meter 6.5 (out of 10). It'll drive some newbies to Zune.net, where they can learn about sharing on their own. But something sharper is needed if Microsoft really hopes to make progress against the Empire That Jobs Built. And a sense of humor wouldn't hurt, either—though I guess that's never been Microsoft's forte.