Microsoft's Botched Kin Ad Was Shameless, not Clueless

Last Updated Apr 19, 2010 1:35 PM EDT

Microsoft (MSFT) has unleased a rash of criticism for some of the marketing it's using to promote its new Kin line of social networking phones. In one video, a young man holds his Kin under his shirt to take a picture. Cue: Shades of sexting. Microsoft apologized and removed the offending scene, but the company clearly crossed a line by using suggestive associations aimed at teens in a way that could only be intentional.

When the Kin line first came out, I wrote that the handsets were social networking devices aimed at a teen crowd. It was a bold change in how to address the cell phone product category, but I found things disturbing about the marketing:

The video about using the phone to share pictures shows a young man holding a Kin under his t-shirt and taking a photo with built-in flash. It reads like a not-so-subtle reference to sexting, or sending nude photos to others. Some of the marketing videos -- beautifully and effectively done, I'll note -- make heavy use of emotional manipulation, like the "When one door closes another opens. Goodbye heartache" update that the users is posting. It's marketing as promises of sex, love, and friendship -- which, to be fair, is probably the subtext of social networking at that age. But still, disturbing when you see companies willing to use such easy emotional buttons for the young.
Microsoft has already backed away from the under-the-shirt-shot scene, apologizing and taking out that segment of the video. Here's a copy of the video that Consumer Reports made:

Some like Chris Matyszczyk, a creative director in advertising and marketing who wrote of the incident on our sister site, CNET, treats the entire incident as something "some might consider about as dangerous as an ice cream cone in a gunfight." But I disagree, because the issue is not the one scene, but its context in Microsoft's marketing, and what it and its ad agency likely know of teens' behaviors, social pressures, physiological drivers, and emotional weaknesses.

All successful marketing manipulates, at least to a degree. You try to understand the emotional needs of the potential customer and then demonstrate how choosing your solution will satisfy those needs. At best, a company genuinely communicates something of value to the consumer, who is happy with the purchase. At worst, the business plays on the fears and desires of a group without any care of whether they are providing something of value that can be a genuine help.

To my mind, Microsoft has moved clearly into the activity of MTI -- marketing to id. In sophisticated advertising, a short clip of a teenager slipping a camera under his shirt and taking a picture is no accident. Given how widespread the issue of sexting has become -- one middle school has a probe of a student who allegedly rented his iPod touch, with nude photos of female classmates and others, to others in his class -- there is no way the creative team could have been unaware of the associations. I may be gullible at times, but not that gullible. And to think that no one in Microsoft management would have had a similar observation would be to suggest that they are all, to the last man or woman, stumbling oafs and clods. I don't buy that, either.

So people in Microsoft and its ad agency must have considered the potential upsaide, which leads me to think that it all had to be part of a plan. First, create the questionable marketing, and then act as the concerned and virtuous party, cutting the scene after getting enough attention in the media. If that was indeed the plan, it seems to be working perfectly.

If the folks in Redmond want to try some real consumer advertising, maybe they should look at Apple, which has been creating a cool factor for its products among the same demographic for decades, all without having to stoop as low as Microsoft just did.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.