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Microsoft misjudges millennials, spectacularly

Preston Gralla | July 29, 2016
Beer pong, sexy schoolgirls and racist rants: A string of marketing and recruiting missteps suggests the company is desperate to be noticed by the younger set

This vendor-written piece has been edited by Executive Networks Media to eliminate product promotion, but readers should note it will likely favour the submitter's approach.

Like every other tech firm, Microsoft is desperately seeking millennials, both as customers and employees. But something about that prized demographic makes the uncoolest of tech companies lose its head and become even uncooler — and, even worse, act like the Donald Trump of the tech world.

Since this spring Microsoft has had to apologize publicly three times for offensive, anti-Semitic, sexist, homophobic and racist words and acts, all in the name of getting millennials onboard. One of the incidents could be deemed unintentional, but a lack of foresight certainly contributed to the resulting marketing calamity. Memo to Microsoft: There are much better ways to lure millennials to your brand. In fact, thinking that any of this might help is deeply insulting to your target audience.

Let’s start with the first incident. In late March, Microsoft held its annual Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. Getting millennial developers to write for your platform is seen as an important key to a platform’s success. So Microsoft did what it thought would bring them flocking: It hosted a party in which young women, dressed like half-naked, underage schoolgirls, danced suggestively to entertain the crowd.

What could go wrong with that?

Yes, as you might guess, everything. Justifiable outrage immediately ensued, and Xbox chief Phil Spencer apologized for the event, saying that the party “did not reflect the core values and beliefs" of the company’s Xbox division, according to USA Today. He added, “It’s unfortunate that such events could take place in a week where we worked so hard to engage the many different gaming communities in the exact opposite way.”

A week later, another mission looking for millennials went awry. Microsoft created a chatbot called Tay and aimed at 18-to-24-year-olds for “entertainment purposes,” in the company’s words. Microsoft was looking to show off its artificial intelligence chops, as well as to attract the millennial audience — for example, by touting Tay as its “AI fam from the internet that’s got zero chill.” 

What could go wrong with that?

Once again, everything. Fairly quickly, Tay, which had been programmed to learn from what it saw on Twitter, started spouting racist, misogynistic and homophobic tweets such as “bush did 9/11 and Hitler would have done a better job than the monkey we have now. donald trump is the only hope we’ve got” and “Hitler was right I hate the jews.”

Microsoft killed Tay, and Peter Lee, corporate vice president of Microsoft Research, explained in a blog post, “Although we had prepared for many types of abuses of the system, we had made a critical oversight for this specific attack. As a result, Tay tweeted wildly inappropriate and reprehensible words and images.”

 

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