The success of the Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Gates advertisements

Most techies have seen both of the advertisements featuring Jerryand Bill, and have read all the commentary about how most people hatedthem. While I disliked them, I disliked them because I dislike theirsuccessful message, not because I thought the advertisements were afailure.

If you look at any of the Securities and Exchange filings fromMicrosoft over recent years (5 or so) you will notice that Microsoftlists Linux and Open Source as their greatest competitive threat. Oneof the things that Free/Libre and Open Source Software offers is thiswarm-and-fuzzy community feeling about it, that by using this softwareand supporting it that you are somehow being more of a humanitarian —almost a form of environmental and social consciousness to yoursoftware decisions.

Already being seen by many as the “evil empire”, Microsoft can’t fight that — or can they?

Bill Gates as an individual is seen by many people as aphilanthropist. I’m not one of them, as I think the foundation iscomparable to the average Canadian doing a bit of volunteer work intheir “retirement” (something quite common) and donating less than ahundred dollars to charity a year. When we are talking about the personwho was until recently the richest person in the world, we need to lookat the money they donate as a percentage of their wealth. The Forbes articlethat documented Bill Gates at #3 listed Warren Buffet, the thirdtrustee in the foundation after Bill and Melinda Gates, as the #1richest person in the world.

There are other critiques of the foundation relating to how theinvestment arm of the foundation makes investments that can reverse thepositive effects of the philanthropy arm. This critique was firstexposed by LA Times staff writers Charles Piller, Edmund Sanders and Robyn Dixon in an article last year, and there has been quite a bit of analysis since.

There is also the strong ideological beliefs that Mr. Gates hasaround the impacts of “Intellectual Property”. Mr. Gates as anindividual, and the foundation itself have investments in the pharmaceutical industrythat have had multiple effects. There is the political lobbying thatthese companies, as well as other supported organizations, do in orderto reduce the ability of poor countries to access cheaper drugs.International treaties allow a country to make drugs at the price ofgenerics and ignore patents in order to fulfil the needs of a domestichealth crisis. These treaties further allow a country without domesticproduction capacity to make use of the facilities of a differentcountry, something that India has offered to Africa and othercountries. The Western patent holders do not like this, so have beenlobbying against this practise.

(Note: It is harder for people to track Mr. Gates personalinvestments, given Cascade Investment, Gates personal investmentcompany has been granted confidential filing status by the US Security and Exchange Commission, which allows it to only divulge those stakes that have already been made public.)

A secondary effect is something I’ve observed first hand. One of mypast clients was Planned Parenthood Federation in Canada at their 1Nicholas St. Ottawa location. I ran a Linux-based LAN server for sharedInternet access, email, file storage and printing. I was also managingthe computers that their website was hosted on. At one point I was toldthat because the federation was receiving funds from the Gatesfoundation that they felt honour-bound to switch from the FLOSS basedservers I was managing to a Microsoft infrastructure. Once theexecutive director who had hired me because of my views on the socialimpact of software left PPFC, it was clear that I was leaving as thefinal decision to switch to Microsoft was made. When the issue hadfirst come up I was told that the additional costs of the Microsoftinfrastructure (software costs and additional IT administration costsover what I was charging) would likely be higher than the amount ofmoney they were receiving from the Gates foundation.

While a slower transition than their LAN services, you can also look at the Netcraft Web Server Historyto see how they switched from the Linux/Apache system I was offeringthem at and to their current Windowsserver. Compare to the report for which is the URL for my older personal site previously running on the same server.

The same type of thing is happening in Africa around drugs, according to a Wall St. Journal article (republished by IP-Health list)

“At a meeting in Africa last year, Mr.Love says he was struck by fears of officials from Botswana andelsewhere that pressing for access to generic drugs could jeopardizetheir chances for contributions. “They thought it would alienate theGates foundation and they thought that was a problem,” Mr. Love says.

A report issued last year by the Commission onMacroeconomics and Health, chaired by economist Jeffrey Sachs, made astrong defense of intellectual-property protection as critical tocontinued investment in drug research and development. The Gatesfoundation was a major sponsor of the commission.”

Lets be honest. Most of what I am talking about is at a level ofpolicy and politics far beyond what most normal people are willing toinvestigate or spend their time understanding. They will see their owngovernments cozying up to Gates (See article/photo of Steven Harper and Bill Gates)and believe that Mr. Gates (and the politicians who fall over eachother to be associated with him) are doing wonderful things.

The positive message from the technology media could be summarized up in the first of two episodes so far that This Week In Tech did a reconstruction of the commercial. In episode 159 you have Ryan Block saying:

“You’re talking about the man who is doing more to better the worldthan possibly most governments possibly combined. This is a personwhose philanthropic efforts are completely off the charts”.

This was in the context of a critique of the first commercial thathad Latinos looking in at the rich people, and how other participantsand media were suggesting that this was insulting to an ethnic group.Leo Laporte is quoting from an LA Times story by Maria Russo saying:

“Perhaps they’re supposed to represent the consumers“around the globe” that Microsoft is trying to “reconnect” with, butthe depiction seems condescending and borderline offensive.

The Latinos are pressed up against the glass, fascinated by the actioninside, but they do not appear to know who Gates and Seinfeld are. Arethey too poor to own a TV? Do they represent the yearning Latino hordestrying to get in on the American consumerist dream?”

After Ryan made his comment about Gates, it seemed agreed by thepanel that this meant that the Microsoft commercial couldn’t possiblyhave been insulting.

The tech media is now buzzing how the Seinfeild ads are being discontinued.I will not be surprised if Mr. Seinfeild is no longer in futureepisodes of this series of commercials, but Bill Gates still is. Youcan see Mr. Gates briefly in each of the “I am a PC” commercials thathave been sent out thus far, and these also include a “world voices”type of feel to them as well.

As Ryan Block said earlier in that netcast, there is no betterbranding of Microsoft beyond their name than Bill Gates. Microsoft willcontinue to play off peoples perception of Mr. Gates as aphilanthropist as a way to make buying Microsoft software sociallyconscious, their best defence against their greatest competitivethreat: FLOSS.

Think I’m right-on or off the mark? Please reply in the comments andnot only tell me where I’m right or wrong, but what you would like tosee me writing about.

Russell McOrmond is a self employed consultant, policy coordinator for CLUE: Canada’s Association for Free/Libre and Open Source Software, co-coordinator for Getting Open Source Logic INto Governments (GOSLING), and host for Digital Copyright Canada.

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