Ad Report Card

Apple’s Bait and Switch

One of the most talked-about and pervasive ad campaigns going these days is Apple’s “switch” series, in which various people describe why they have dumped PCs using the Windows operating system and bought Macs instead. Most of the chatter has been less about the spots than the strategy they represent—basically throwing a rock at Windows. How effective are the actual commercials? You can see them through (using either the Windows Media Player or the RealPlayer) or through Apple’s site (using QuickTime).

Liza with an iBook

The ads: The dozen spots in this series follow a pattern. In each, a presumably new Apple customer stands before a pure white background and says something about why he or she made the switch. The version that I seem to see most often features a very slender woman in jeans and what looks like a gold necklace in the shape of a 45 rpm center insert. She explains that her parents made her buy a PC, but she found it “unwieldy” and eventually got an iBook instead. “I just thought it was cooler,” she explains, adding that the laptop “never crashes.” Oddly folksy music, like something from a cartoon, plays in the background. At the end she identifies herself: “My name is Liza Richardson, and I’m a DJ.” Other spots feature a student named Ellen Feiss, who tells of losing a term paper on a PC; a Windows LAN adminstrator named Aaron Adams, who comments that Windows “wants to get in your face all the time”; Mark Frauenfelder, identified as a writer and illustrator, who compares the switch to getting out of a bad relationship; and David Carey, publisher of The New Yorker, who carefully praises his iBook without actually criticizing Windows. And so on.

Brief discussion of bias: Microsoft, while best known for publishing Slate, also makes the Windows operating system. On the other hand, I don’t use a Windows machine myself, because I’m an extremely dedicated Apple customer, and since college I’ve owned nothing but Macs.

Additional discussion of bias: A friend pointed out to me that the above-mentioned Liza Richardson, in addition to being a DJ, also does work as a music consultant for commercials. And as her KCRW bio notes, her past clients have included Apple. They have also, however, included Microsoft. So maybe it’s a wash. Even so, I’m not sure Apple was wise to have a former vendor posing as an average consumer.

Bitching and switching: Perhaps “average consumer” isn’t the right phrase. The stars of these ads aren’t really average, they’re elite, central-casting renditions of the cutting-edge “thought leaders” who supposedly set the trends that everybody else follows. (I think this is why people identify themselves at the very end of the ad—to make their cultural credentials sound more dramatic.) It’s extremely popular in the marketing world to believe that the masses simply ape the influential few, which presumably serves to make the ads even more effective. I’m not sure about this, though. I think Apple runs the risk that the people in these ads simply come across as overzealous snobs—which is usually how I’m treated when I offer a Windows user an unsolicited lecture on the superiority of Apple’s products.

The other risk Apple takes is in so explicitly attacking a competitor, but in this case the competition is so massively lopsided that I don’t think it really hurts. After all, it’s not like there’s any computer buyer in the United States who’s going to be hearing about Windows for the first time through these spots. Given that Apple has made a lot of noise in the past year or so about needing to increase its share of the personal computer market beyond 5 percent, a campaign like this one is pretty much the only way to do it. So all bias aside, this strikes me as the best batch of ads Apple has come up with in a long time.