Ad Report Card: Mac ’n’ Roll

Given that the relationship between popular music and personal computers remains mired in controversy, Apple’s decision to push the digital music capabilities of its newest line of iMacs has raised some eyebrows. Then again, Apple has almost always pursued a quasi-rebellious, do-your-own-thing image in its advertising, and Apple-istas are (supposedly) nonconformist individuals who “think different” about all rules, apparently including grammar. A new Apple ad for those iMacs, which come equipped with a CD-RW drive and software called iTunes, is no doubt meant to extend this image—and to draw as much as possible on consumers’ interest in digital music without getting swept up in the bad vibes about copyright infringement. You can see the spot at Apple’s Web site (as well as an “exclusive” longer version of the same ad).

The Ad: The setting is a large, ornate, empty theater. A rumpled Everydude takes his seat and surveys the stage—which is filled with pop stars. “Hey,” he says, smiling goofily. “Um, for this CD, I’d like to start off with Liz?” Liz Phair, does her best vixen smile in answering, “Sure, for you.” And he continues naming the songs he wants from the assembled artists on his mix CD, picking something from De La Soul, getting Ziggy Marley on board, joshing with Smashmouth. George Clinton interjects, “I’ma drop the funk bomb on ya.” Finally the kid addresses “Mr. White,” who seems to be wearing a robe. “You can call me Barry,” this leviathan intones. Everydude requests something for “you know, the ladies.” Barry White, who looks like he might pass out any moment, replies somewhat unconvincingly, “Now you’re speaking my language.” Cue a White tune as the words “Rip. Mix. Burn” appear onscreen. “It’s your music,” says Clinton in a voiceover. “Burn it on a Mac. Dig?” (The longer version also features Iggy Pop and Aimee Mann, among others.)

What it’s trying to say: Celebrity endorsements are nothing new, of course, but Apple has done a fairly clever thing here in assembling a big gang of (critically respectable) musicians to suggest that the recording artist establishment is all for the Mac and has no problem with its music-related features—not like those other troublesome music software offerings that keep running afoul of copyright lawyers. The intended message is not just that iTunes is cool, but that it’s somehow artist-friendly. The ad is also clever in its fine dicing of the underlying disagreement between the information-must-be-free fanatics and interests of musicians who see things differently. On the one hand, we have George Clinton saying, “It’s your music,” but on the other hand, note that this kid isn’t barking orders to the assembled popsters. He’s asking their permission.

And yet … For all this cleverness, there’s something stilted and flat about the spot. The Barry White climax is limp, even if it is somewhat interesting to learn that he’s still alive. (Actually, even seeing him in this commercial, I’m not totally sure about that.) And the ad’s stunt factor is undercut by the fact that all this kid is really going to do is use a couple of thousand dollars worth of computer equipment to make a glorified mixed tape. Big deal! In the end, Apple is so successful at walking the tightrope of controversy that its ultimate message isn’t all that exciting.

That said, any Apple ad that doesn’t feature the appalling Jeff Goldblum strikes me as a step in the right direction. B-minus.