Ad Report Card

Mac Attack

Apple’s mean-spirited new ad campaign.

The Spot:Two men stand side by side in front of a featureless, white background. “Hello, I’m a Mac,” says the guy on the right (who is much younger and dressed in jeans). “And I’m a PC,” says the guy on the left (who wears dorky glasses, ill-fitting khakis, and a jacket and tie). The two men discuss the many advantages of using a Mac and seem to agree that Macs are “better” than PCs. (Click here to see the ads.)

When I write about ads, I often face an obstacle: I’m not in the target demographic. Am I really in a position to judge whether, say, a Lexus ad is on the mark? The chances that I (driver of a 1996 Saturn with 105,000 miles on it) will buy a luxury sedan are essentially nil. Likewise, who am I to say if those adult-diaper spots are winning mindshare with senior citizens? Incontinence is a health issue that has (knock on wood) not yet hit my radar screen.

In the case of these Mac ads, however, I’m smack in the middle of the target demo. I’m a PC user, and I’ve often considered switching to an Apple. Thus, I feel equipped to say: These ads don’t work on me. They are conceptually brilliant, beautifully executed, and highly entertaining. But they don’t make me want to buy a Mac.

Let’s talk about the good news first. Directed by Phil Morrison (who also directed Junebug—my favorite film last year—and the recent VW ads featuring shocking car crashes), the campaign is a marvel of clarity and simplicity. No slogans. No video effects. No voice-overs. And lots of clean, white space. It’s like a bath of cool mineral water when these ads come on after a string of garish, jam-packed spots for other products. (This bare-bones look is right in tune with Apple’s consistently stripped-down marketing approach. To understand what makes Apple’s aesthetic stand apart, check out this joke video—actually created by Microsoft employees—that envisions what might happen if Microsoft redesigned the iPod’s packaging.)

My problem with these ads begins with the casting. As the Mac character, Justin Long (who was in the forgettable movie Dodgeball and the forgettabler TV show Ed) is just the sort of unshaven, hoodie-wearing, hands-in-pockets hipster we’ve always imagined when picturing a Mac enthusiast. He’s perfect. Too perfect. It’s like Apple is parodying its own image while also cementing it. If the idea was to reach out to new types of consumers (the kind who aren’t already evangelizing for Macs), they ought to have used a different type of actor.

Meanwhile, the PC is played by John Hodgman—contributor to TheDaily Show and This American Life, host of an amusing lecture series, and all-around dry-wit extraordinaire. Even as he plays the chump in these Apple spots, his humor and likability are evident. (Look at that hilariously perfect pratfall he pulls off in the spot titled “Viruses.”) The ads pose a seemingly obvious question—would you rather be the laid-back young dude or the portly old dweeb?—but I found myself consistently giving the “wrong” answer: I’d much sooner associate myself with Hodgman than with Long.

The writing may have something to do with this, too. Hodgman gets all the laugh lines! And Mr. Mac comes off as a smug little twit, who (in the spot titled “WSJ”) just happens to carry around a newspaper that has a great review of himself inside. (Even Norman Mailer usually refrains from such crassness.)

The final straw, for me, is that the spots make unconvincing claims. The one titled “Network” has a funny bit where “that new digital camera from Japan” is represented by a Japanese woman in a minidress. While Hodgman has trouble talking with the woman, Long speaks Japanese and shares giggles with her because “everything just kind of works with a Mac.” Now, I happen to have a digital camera from Japan, and it works just fine with my PC. It did from the moment I connected it. Similarly, the spot titled “Out of the Box” (again, a very funny visual metaphor, with Hodgman and Long crouching in cardboard boxes) suggests that new PCs require tons of attention and alteration when you first fire them up. But I bought a new ThinkPad notebook just a few months ago, and it ran on all cylinders pretty much straight out of the gate. Why insult my intelligence by telling me something that I know isn’t true?

I suppose the answer is that some people don’t know yet. I can see how these ads might be effective with inexperienced computer users. If you’re a first-time buyer, the idea that a Mac will make your life immeasurably easier sure does sound appealing. But if you’re a PC user, these ads are more likely to irritate you than convert you.

Grade: C+. As usual, Apple hopes to shift the debate away from a battle over specs and value and toward a battle we can all understand: cool kid versus nerd. But these days, aren’t nerds like John Hodgman the new cool kids? And isn’t smug superiority (no matter how affable and casually dressed) a bit off-putting as a brand strategy?