Ad Report Card

Open Secret

What’s that little blond kid in the IBM ad selling?

“Prodigy.” (Click here and scroll down to “The Future is Open” to see it.)

I’m not really sure. It’s got something to do with IBM and Linux. (Full disclosure: Slate is owned by Microsoft, which 1) is the mortal enemy of IBM and 2) makes Windows, which I’m told is the mortal enemy of Linux. I honestly couldn’t care less about this, so I don’t think I have too much of a conflict.)

A small boy sits in an empty white room. Some famous people sit down beside him and offer tutelage. Hollywood director Penny Marshall (aka Laverne) says, “Everything’s about timing, kid.” Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates says that “sharing data is the first step toward community.” Muhammad Ali says, “Speak your mind. Don’t back down.” The kid remains silent. Meanwhile, an unseen man and woman—spying on all this from some hidden chamber—marvel at the little boy’s aptitude and promise. “Does he have a name?” the woman asks. The man says, “His name is Linux.”

This is a don’t-change-the-channel spot. That blank-faced kid in a big white room is a totally eye-catching image. And that’s before they roll out the intriguing celebrities. The first time I saw this, I was desperate to know what Skip Gates, John Wooden, and Muhammad Ali could possibly be endorsing together. The truth is, I’m still not quite sure. But we’ll get to that later.

The look of this ad was stolen, I think, from THX 1138 (1971), George Lucas’ first feature film. Little boy Linux, just like citizen THX 1138, sits in front of a bright white background, sporting a white shirt and not much hair. Also, both the ad and the film often cut to surveillance video. And both feature creepy soundtracks with ambient whooshing. There’s clearly a sci-fi homage going on, but I’m not sure why IBM would want to link Linux with a techno-dystopian nightmare. (I wish Laverne were somehow in the Lucas film. Can you see her in the subterranean holding cell, wearing her “L” sweater?)

Click here to see the ad Anyway, this ad is quite stylish. It’s been on for months and has now gone through several iterations—including one that plunks the kid down in front of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Taj Mahal, and another that uses a quote from Victor Hugo. Yet still I’m left with unanswered questions. Such as: What is this ad for? And: Seriously, what is it for? Can I buy something here or what?

I talked to IBM’s Lisa Baird, who is responsible for the company’s worldwide advertising. She explained that this ad is actually targeting a highly select group, including “CEOs, CFOs, and prime ministers.” Wow. That’s not me, and my reader mail suggests that it’s not you either. (Or do prime ministers often say, “Suck it, assclown”?) So this ad isn’t meant for us, and, although it cost gazillions of dollars to produce and is on television all the time (especially during football games), it also has nothing to sell us.

At least nothing tangible. Baird says the ad is selling a perception: the perception that Linux is important, that it’s here for the long haul, and that it’s got some big guns behind it—like IBM, Muhammad Ali, and yes, even Laverne. So when the tech guy at your company proposes a switch to Linux, he’s taken seriously. All because you, and more importantly your CEO, watched this ad during the football game.

At first glance, this seems inefficient. Along with a few CEOs and prime ministers (and yes, a lot of tech guys), IBM is also reaching millions of people (e.g., everyone I know) who have no clue what this ad is for, even when they’ve seen it dozens of times. The celebrities and the voice-over sort of explain the benefits of Linux, but these comments make little sense unless you already know what they’re talking about. (Here’s what they’re talking about, as I understand it: Linux is free software that is “open source,” meaning programmers can modify it and share their changes without violating any copyrights. IBM doesn’t own Linux or make a dime from it, but they’re banking that in the future, people will prefer Linux-compatible products to Microsoft-based ones. In case you were wondering.) But can it really be effective to buy high-priced airtime for this spot—and bring in all these celebs—just to reach a tiny, select group? What ever happened to narrow-casting? Isn’t this wasting money and effort?

Baird says absolutely not. The stakes in this fight are so shockingly high that the ad is worth every penny. And I guess when you’re up against Microsoft, you’ve got to roll out some big guns.

So that answers my biggest questions. But I’m left with a couple more. Like: Why is little Linux so sullen? Did someone steal Linux’s lunch money? Also: In later ads, will Linux grow up to be Eminem?

Grade: A-. It’s a spectacular ad in terms of creating buzz. Everyone talks about it. And (once you understand it) the metaphor is a strong one: a rapidly growing “prodigy” (that’s what IBM calls the kid) who soaks up knowledge from everyone and everything he encounters. That’s a novel and clever way to pitch Linux. Of course, I’m not a CEO, prime minister, or tech guy, so I can’t gauge how effective this ad is with its targets. But it sure works on me. And a quick lurk in some techie chat rooms reveals that Linux diehards love this ad and love that IBM is in their corner. I’d give this spot an A+, except that it still leaves much of its viewership totally baffled.