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Microsoft Ad Faux Pas

Yunjin Kim and Jorge Garcia of the TV series "Lost" pose during the season two DVD release party at the Turtle Bay Resort in Kahuku, Hawaii, Aug. 15, 2006.
AP Photo/Lucy Pemoni
Who was that mysterious Windows user?

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."

Microsoft's effort was an apparent response to a popular, national campaign by Apple Computer Corp. featuring names, photographs and testimonials from customers who began using Macintosh technology because of frustration with Windows.

In Microsoft's ad volley, an unidentified woman wrote that she jumped to Microsoft after eight years as a loyal Macintosh user and boasted that the "process of switching was as easy as the marketing hype had promised."

Trouble erupted after amateur sleuths at a popular technology Web site, Slashdot.org, noticed that a photograph showing the woman with a cup of coffee was a stock image available for purchase elsewhere on the Internet.

Other Internet users picked out what few personal details they could find hinting at the woman's identity. Unlike the Apple ads, which prominently include customers' names, Microsoft's mentioned only that the author was a 5-foot-3-inch free-lance writer who once rented a Lexus and is married to a man who is 6 feet tall.

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."

Documents accompanying the ad, which encouraged other Windows users to tell Microsoft about their experiences, included hidden references to Mallinson's name, public relations firm, Wes Rataushk & Associates Inc., and personal Web site.

Gravning confirmed Microsoft hired Rataushk for the ad.

A spokeswoman from Apple Computer would not comment.