December 29th, 2006


So hip they're Japanese, so Japanese they're square

As 2006 fades, we can wave goodbye to Apple's rather amusing Chiat-Day "Hi, I'm a Mac" ad campaign. According to press reports Justin Long, who plays the Steve-Jobs-looking Mac guy next to John Hodgman's tubby Bill-Gates-looking PC guy, is sick of the role and won't be doing any more after the December ads Goodwill and Gift Exchange.

I've been particularly interested in how the ads draw not just on the Jobs-Gates rivalry, but on hip v. square stereotypes that have floated around in US culture since the 1940s. They rhyme, for instance, with the Jim Henson sketch for the Ed Sullivan Show in which switched-on hipster Kermit tries to educate a square on "visual thinking".

Naturally, I've been terribly interested to see that one of the requirements of Justin Long's hipster character is to speak fluent Japanese. The Networking ad shows him holding hands not just with PC guy, but also a cute new digital camera-girl from Japan, with whom he's able to converse fluently. There's a clumsy parody of the ad on YouTube which only confirms the awfulness of the PC mentality: "See, I speak different languages," explains Mac guy. "Why?" counters PC guy, with a smug pragmatism which comes off as stupid racism, "We live in the United States".

Over on Apple Japan's website, meanwhile, both the PC guy and the Mac guy are cool enough to speak Japanese; that won't suffice to differentiate them. And, in a more consensual, collectivist culture -- one that's tended to resist comparison advertising -- is differentiation even the name of the game?

But these are, by and large, the same Chiat Day ads, with the same scripts, played by actors wearing the same clothing signifiers -- a business suit versus sharp-but-casual leisure wear. "Pasokon", the Japanese PC guy, is notably cooler and slimmer than his American counterpart, sporting a better head of hair, despite the kakaricho side-parting. When it comes to cultural specifics, of course, some changes have had to be made. The US Seasonal Greetings ads have been replaced, in Japan, by a New Year's Card ad.

Nengajo cards are what the Japanese send the way we send Christmas cards. They're cards you buy from the post office in December, either blank or sporting an image, but in either case stamped with a lottery number which will bring gifts to some lucky recipients when the draw comes up in January. The idea is that you customize the blank cards with your own drawings, woodblock stamps, and so on, usually representing the animal of the Chinese New Year. 2007's animal is the boar.

"Cute pig!" says Pasokon, looking at the nengajo card homeprinted using iLife. "Uh, it's a boar, actually," corrects Mac, demonstrating that if "cool" in America is tied up with speaking Japanese, in Japan it's tied up with superior knowledge of Chinese astrology. Chalk one up for orthopraxy -- here the cool points are awarded for "proper social behavior and adherence to ritual as the key to aligning the cosmos". It's enough to get Marxy and me -- the Mac and PC guys of Japanthropology -- slapping each other on the back in a gesture of heartwarming seasonal detente.