Ad Report Card: Apple's Sour Mac Pitch

Filmmaker Phil Morrison has turned his directing skills to a series of new ads for Macintosh computers. But does the match of Mac "coolness" versus IBM-clone "clunkiness" seem too mean-spirited?

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

A new series of computer ads has caught the eye of Seth Stevenson. He's the ad critic for the online magazine, Slate. Seth isn't sure he likes the spots, but he knows they're talking to him.

Mr. SETH STEVENSON (Ad critic, Slate online magazine): When I review ads, I often face an obstacle. I'm not in the target demographic. Am I really in a position to judge, say, whether an adult diaper ad is on the mark? Incontinence is a health issue that has, knock on wood, not yet hit my radar screen. But in the case of Apple Computer's new ad campaign for the Mac, I'm smack in the middle of the target demo. I'm a PC user, and I've often considered switching to an Apple. So let's see how well the spots speak to me. We see two men standing side by side in front of a featureless, white background.

(Soundbite of commercial)

Mr. JUSTIN LONG (Actor):(In commercial clip) Hello, I'm a Mac.

Mr. STEVENSON: That's the man on the right, a younger guy dressed in jeans.

Mr. JOHN HODGMAN (Actor): (In commercial clip) Hello, I'm a PC.

Mr. STEVENSON: That's the guy on the left who wears dorky glasses, ill-fitting khakis, and a jacket and tie. In each spot, the two debate the merits of a Mac versus a PC, and you can guess which machine comes out on top.

(Soundbite of sneezing)

Mr. LONG: (In commercial clip) Gesundheit. You okay?

Mr. HODGMAN: (In commercial clip) No. I'm not okay. I have that virus that's going around.

Mr. LONG: (In commercial clip) Oh, yeah.

(Soundbite of nose blowing)

Mr. HODGMAN: (In commercial clip) In fact, you better stay back. This one's a doozy.

Mr. LONG: (In commercial clip) That's okay, I'll be fine.

Mr. HODGMAN: (In commercial clip) No, no, do not be a hero. Last year, there were 114,000 known viruses for PCs.

Mr. LONG: (In commercial clip) PCs, not Macs. So, you just grab this...

Mr. HODGMAN: (In commercial clip) I think I got to crash.

Mr. LONG: (In commercial clip) Hey, if you feel like that'll help. Good.

Mr. STEVENSON: As a member of the target demo, I feel equipped to say, these ads don't work on me. They're conceptually brilliant, beautifully executed, and very entertaining. But they don't make me want to buy a Mac.

Let's talk about the good news first. The spots are directed by Phil Morrison, who also directed Junebug, my favorite film of last year. And the campaign is a marvel of clarity and simplicity.

Mr. LONG: (In commercial clip) I'm going to do fun stuff like movies, music, Podcasts, stuff like that.

Mr. HODGMAN: (In commercial clip) I also do fun stuff like timesheets and spreadsheets and pie charts.

Mr. STEVENSON: No slogans, no video effects, no voiceovers, and lots of clean, white space. My problem with these ads begins with the casting. As the Mac character, actor Justin Long is just the sort of unshaven, hoody-wearing, hands-in-pockets hipster we've always imagined when we picture a Mac enthusiast. He's perfect - too perfect. It's like Apple was parodying its own image while also cementing it. If the idea was to reach out to new types of consumers, they ought to have used a different type of actor.

Meanwhile, the PC is played by John Hodgman, contributor to The Daily Show and This American Life and all-around dry wit extraordinaire. Even as he plays the chump in these Apple spots, his humor and likeability are evident. Hodgman gets all the laugh lines, and Mr. Mac comes off as the smug little twit.

Mr. LONG: (In commercial clip) Ilife comes on every Mac.

Mr. HODGMAN: (In commercial clip) Ilife, well, I have some very cool aps that are bundled with me.

Mr. LONG: (In commercial clip) Like, what have you got?

Mr. HODGMAN: (In commercial clip) Calculator.

Mr. LONG: (In commercial clip) That's cool. Anything else?

Mr. HODGMAN: (In commercial clip) Clock.

Mr. STEVENSON: The final straw for me is that the spots make unconvincing claims. The one titled Network has a funny bit where a new digital camera from Japan is represented by a Japanese woman in a mini-dress. While Hodgman has trouble talking with the woman, Long speaks Japanese and shares giggles with her, because, as he says, everything just kind of works with a Mac.

Mr. LONG: (Speaking foreign language)

Unidentified Woman: (Speaking foreign language)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEVENSON: 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. Why insult my intelligence by telling me something that I know isn't true? I give this Apple campaign a C+. I can see how these ads might be effective with inexperienced computer users, but if you're a PC user, these ads are more likely to irritate you than convert you.

BRAND: That's opinion from Seth Stevenson. He writes the Ad Report Card column for the online magazine, Slate.

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