Why Bill Has Become Microsoft's Mr. Rogers

Article excerpt

Bill Gates has a new sideline: company pitchman. During breaks from Shaq's domination of the NBA finals last week, the smiling, sweater-clad Microsoft chairman popped up frequently in television commercials for the software giant. He reassured computer users that "the best is yet to come" and pledged that Microsoft will continue to make "great software" that "will help your children learn." With its jangly folk-guitar soundtrack, high-tech-office backdrop and Gates's enthusiastic delivery, the commercial made it appear that times have never been better in Redmond.

But looks can be deceiving. Gates's "Vision" commercial, full of optimism for the future, is part of a public-relations blitz aimed at countering the hard reality the company faces after its long antitrust trial. Two weeks ago Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson branded Microsoft an "untrustworthy" monopoly and ordered the company to be broken in two. Gates's warm and fuzzy new ad aims to convince consumers that Microsoft is not a ruthless predator, while also transforming his image from conniving monopolist to the nerd next door. Or as Advertising Age ad critic Bob Garfield puts it, "less like Dr. No and more like Mr. Rogers."

But Bill's soft sell is playing to mixed reviews. Some advertising and crisis-management experts say the commercial lacks substance. Gates's failure to directly take on Jackson's ruling in the ad have some wondering if that's Nero's fiddle playing in the background. "In crisis control, it's always best to hit the crisis head-on and get on with business, and he's doing neither," says Donny Deutsch, who creates commercials for Mitsubishi and Domino's Pizza. The script, about software advances of the future, strikes some as legalistic. "Right down to the powder blue sweater, this commercial sounds like it's been programmed," says Jerry Della Femina, who created the famous Joe Isuzu ads of the 1980s. Even Gates's former adman isn't convinced. "This comes off as a marketing ploy," says Chris Wall, who created Microsoft's "Start Me Up" Windows 95 commercials. "Bill Gates did not become the richest man in the world by being Mr. Rogers."

Yet others see Gates riding to the rescue of his besieged company just as Lee Iacocca did for Chrysler 20 years ago. "Bill Gates is the guy who invented the process and built the company," says Iacocca's former marketing adviser Arthur (Bud) Liebler, now vice president of marketing at DaimlerChrysler. …