Microsoft Make-Up

Basic chronology of events regarding yesterday’s Microsoft “Switcher” fiasco:

  1. In the morning, MacInTouch and a few other news sources pointed to the article, expressing skepticism that it was legitimate.
  2. In the afternoon, popular sites like Slashdot and Scripting News picked up the story and ran, poking holes in the idea that the tale is legit; most tellingly, that photo which accompanied the article, ostensibly of the anonymous “author” herself, is actually a stock photo from Getty.
  3. In the evening, the Associated Press ran a story by Ted Bridis “outing” the switcher as Valerie G. Mallinson, a PR hack for a company hired by Microsoft. Everyone chuckled because the AP tracked her down by “examining personal data hidden within documents that Microsoft had published with its controversial ad”.

I think the AP missed the real story, however. (To be honest, I did too when I wrote about it yesterday.)

In case you missed the original article while it was available at microsoft.com, Dave Winer has it mirrored, including style sheets, at Scripting News.

There’s a lot of ass-covering going on. The idea that Microsoft published a made-up story about a Mac user who switched to a PC is, to say the least, embarrassing. False testimonials? Total amateur hour. As Dave Winer wrote yesterday: “You’d think Microsoft could at least find one real person to say they made the switch from Mac to Windows and were happy about it.”

(They could have used Winer himself, come to think of it.)

There are lots of embarrassing aspects to the story. The stock photo. The blatant falsehoods (such as the insinuations that neither Office nor Internet Explorer are available for the Mac). The marketing-speak that permeates the entire article. That it reeks of a juvenile response to Apple’s Switch ads. But the most damaging issue is the idea that the entire article was simply made up, that it’s a fabricated testimonial which Microsoft tried to pass off as the true story of an actual person.

Bad marketing is one thing. Bald-faced lying is another.

The main thrust of the AP article, however, is (surprise, surprise) the conflict angle — that the Mac-to-Windows switcher story was an ill-conceived response to Apple’s Switch campaign.

But the conflict angle isn’t interesting. Apple’s Switch campaign is a big, slick, multi-million dollar advertising campaign. Microsoft’s switcher article was one measly web page, and a poor one at that. What makes this story interesting isn’t that article existed at all, but that it wasn’t even true.

Microsoft fessed up to the bad marketing. But they’re sticking to the claim that there exists a legitimate author of the article. In other words, Yes, it was poorly done; but we didn’t just make it up.

But read the AP article:

Microsoft acknowledged that the writer’s anonymity and use of the stock photograph contributed to suspicions whether it was making truthful representations. Executives pulled the ad Monday but still would not identify the author by name.

“It was an actual customer,” spokeswoman Charmaine Gravning said. “We kind of figured out that really isn’t the best way to go about communicating. We decided it was best to point customers to the Windows XP home page.”

Note that Microsoft doesn’t name Mallinson as the author. That’s an AP allegation that Microsoft doesn’t confirm.

So where did the AP get Mallinson’s name? According to the AP article:

Red-faced executives at Microsoft Corp. on Monday pulled a breezy advertisement purportedly by a free-lance writer who switched to using Windows software from the rival Macintosh, amid questions about whether the woman actually exists.

An employee at a public relations company hired by Microsoft, Valerie G. Mallinson of Shoreline, Wash., later acknowledged she was Microsoft’s mysterious convert. The Associated Press tracked Mallinson by examining personal data hidden within documents that Microsoft had published with its controversial ad.

“I guess I can tell the truth,” Mallinson said Monday. “It was me. I made the switch.”

Too good to be true, right? Ha-ha, the AP outs the anonymous author using clues in Microsoft’s own crappy file format. Everyone loves a story about people fishing personal data out of Microsoft’s own Word files.

But the AP article doesn’t specify which documents they looked at. This raised a red flag — I read the article yesterday, and I didn’t see any references to accompanying documents. So I went back and looked again.

There is a Word document linked from the article, but if anything, it indicates that the AP let Microsoft off the hook. All the way at the bottom of the web page, there’s this boilerplate:

Do you have an idea for a story? We’d love to hear from you. How have you used Microsoft software to make your home or work life easier, more fun, faster, or simpler? Submit your ideas, and you could get published on the Insider Web site! Submit Your Idea Today!

Go ahead and download the ShowOffYourSkills.doc Word file. Open it up in a text editor (like BBEdit or BBEdit Lite, if you’re on a Mac) so you can see the raw contents of the file. Search for “Mallinson”, and you’ll find her name near the bottom of the file:

CommentsgTo[\x1E], Valerie Mallinson (Wes Rataushk & Assc Inc)

But this isn’t a Word version of the switcher article — it’s just a blank template for Windows users to download if they want to send in their own Microsoft Insider stories.

This is the file from which Ted Bridis, the AP writer, got Mallinson’s name. I called Bridis and he confirmed it. I asked him if he found it plausible that the same person who wrote the template — the only person he was able to track down — also just happened to be the author of the controversial switcher article. He told me yes, and that when he spoke to Mallinson, she admitted both to writing the template and the switcher article, which she claims is her own true story.

Me? I find it unlikely. I don’t doubt that Mallinson is claiming authorship of the switcher article, but I suspect she’s taking one for the team. But it doesn’t matter whether she actually wrote it. Microsoft’s own spokesperson Charmaine Gravning told the AP “It was an actual customer.”

In what world does a person getting paid to write Microsoft PR qualify as an “actual customer”?

Another angle to the spin is the claim that the switcher article was an advertisement. It wasn’t. This is an ad. The difference is that ads are allowed to portray fictional accounts.

The details of the switcher article, however amusing, are not important. The real story is that at Microsoft — indisputably one of the most powerful, most successful corporations in the world — it is standard operating procedure to fabricate customer testimonials.

Here’s another one, ostensibly written by a boy in the seventh grade:

[Update, Oct. 16: Microsoft has pulled this story from their web site, as well. Google’s cache still has it, however.]

I can’t begin to tell you all the ways that Encarta helped with that first assignment, though I should mention that the historical map of France from the Interactive World Atlas and the drawing of Louis XVI from the Multimedia/Photos section, both of which I printed, made a stunning centerpiece for my poster. The features never seem to stop: up-to-date content delivered as soon as it is available; 2-D and 3-D Virtual Tours of famous monuments and natural features; the Dictionary, Thesaurus, and Translation Dictionaries; and the Web Center with real-time news right on my computer as it happens.

Oh yeah, that was written by a seventh grader.

Putting the ‘Ass’ in ‘Associates’

The PR firm is Wes Rataushk and Associates. I figured I’d call them and ask about the authorship of the remaining Insider testimonials. The entire transcript of the call:

PR Guy: (annoyed tone) “Hellooo?”

Me: “Hi, can I speak to Valerie Mallinson, please?”

PR Guy: There’s nobody here by that name. People keep calling us about that, but there’s nobody here by that name.

And then he immediately hung up on me.

Just between you and me, Wes Rataushk and Associates doesn’t exactly seem to be the world’s best PR firm.

No Comment

The Daring Fireball is most definitely not an anti-Microsoft web site. I’m not opposed to Windows — I’m opposed to blatant lying.

Caught in a lie, Microsoft stupidly chose to lie again. This is the exact sort of situation “No comment” was made for. Better still would have been to simply fess up and admit the whole thing was a sham, but that’s a lot to ask from Microsoft.

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