Since I'm now paranoid that email isn't working for me, or that Wired's spam filters are eating all mails from me, I'm taking the unprecedented step of posting the column here, just to make absolutely sure it gets through.
May 22nd 2007
In Apple's epic soap, "dual core values" clash
There are two kinds of people in the world -- those who say there are two kinds of people in the world and those who don't. The former do well in advertising.
Apple's long-running and highly successful Get A Mac ads (currently playing somewhere near this column -- PC may well be bumping his forehead against the masthead as I speak) are a beautiful example. They don't just pit Macs against PCs -- they blow it up into an epic conflict between rival ways of being. It's a huge exaggeration of tiny differences, of course. But as rhetoric, it seems to work well; the past year has seen Apple's market share growing faster than any other U.S. computer maker's.
What interests me about the campaign (directed by Phil Morrison at TBWA) is how it resuscitates, re-instates and cleverly manipulates an ancient enmity most see as having died a death back in the 1980s: the gulf between the hip and the square.
"Against a minimalist all-white background," explains Wikipedia, spelling it out for any visiting Martian who hasn't seen the ads, "a man dressed in casual clothes introduces himself as a Macintosh running Mac OS X... while a man in a more formal suit and tie combination introduces himself as a non-Macintosh personal computer running Microsoft Windows. The two then act out a brief vignette in which the capabilities and attributes of 'Mac' and 'PC' are compared, with PC -- characterized as a formal, stuffy person overly concerned with work -- often being frustrated by the more laid-back Mac's superior abilities. Some more recent ads have shifted focus away from comparing features of the computer systems to a more general comparison."
Advertising -- which can never sell us orange juice without selling us happiness too -- has an inherent tendency to hook small scenarios to huge themes, but when it's promoting a tool as powerful as a computer (we organize our lives with these things), microscopic differences quickly become clashing archetypes. As they've developed, the Get a Mac ads have focused on big questions: Who am I? What's my style, my orientation to life? How do I organize my time, my work? What are my core values?
As the episodes of this operatic soap have unfolded, actors Justin Long (the Steve Jobs-like Mac character) and John Hodgman (a plumper, funnier Bill Gates) have come to embody rival views of American life (the weak British and Japanese versions carry nothing like the same cultural clout). Dual core values, if you like.
Take the recent Flashback episode. Mac and PC are kids. Mac wants to show PC some of his paintings. "I have a better idea," retorts the precocious puritan. "How about I calculate how much time you just wasted?" Back to the present, and PC is still performing the same anal cost-benefit analysis.
PC -- as archetypal a bean-counting WASP puritan as ever stepped off the Mayflower -- has a very particular relationship with time. At the dismal party celebrating the release of Vista, for instance, he tries to make space in his diary for another celebration five years hence -- but remembers he has a strategy session that day. His colleague, only marginally less joyless, has an all-day meeting.
We don't have to have read Max Weber's seminal book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism to recognize a bad case of "worldly asceticism" here. PC, his life overrun by the gray corporate mindset, has over-rationalized every aspect of his existence, disenchanting and instrumentalizing the world in the process. He's the opposite of a hippy. He's not switched on, and probably not getting laid. He's Dylan's Mr Jones.
Bill Gates -- the brunt of this joke -- was not amused by the implications. "Does honesty matter in these things," he asked peevishly, "or if you're really cool, that means you get to be a lying person whenever you feel like it? I don't think the over 90 percent... who use Windows PCs think of themselves as dullards, or the kind of klutzes that somebody is trying to say they are."
The PC character does emerge as unlucky -- if not a klutz -- in the ads. One moment he's bandaged in a wheelchair (someone tripped over his power cord), the next he's on a hospital trolley, sick with cryptic error message "WMP dot DLL", or massively bloated with trial software "that doesn't do very much unless you buy the whole thing".
Mac, meanwhile, stays relaxed, informal and slightly bland -- a coffeehouse beatnik dressed by Gap; the conformist-cool straight man to PC's comedy square.
The distinction is distinctly retro. The hip / square thing could take us back to Norman Mailer's provocative 1957 essay The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster. Or it could take us even further back. Mailer traces the origins of the hipster stereotype to Mezz Mezzrow, a Jewish American who declared himself a "voluntary negro" in the 1920s; a man who rejected the "antiquated nervous circuits" of convention and tried "to create a new nervous system for himself". Following Mezzrow, the beats of the 40s and 50s would use jazz, Zen, drugs, travel and transgression to channel what Mailer controversially called "the source of Hip -- the Negro".
So, wait, the Mac character is in some stereotypical, essentialist way black? Well, maybe. But you didn't hear it from Apple, who take care to place African-Americans neutrally through their Get a Mac ads (bit parts amongst the PCs mostly). A couple of amateur YouTube video tributes to the campaign are less politically correct. In one we find a black MacBook boasting about his bigger hard drive, in another the PC character is a prim-but-prurient secretary who wants to find out whether it's true what they say about Macs. Black Macs.
By the late 60s the hip / square binary had lost its racial dimension, becoming safe and familiar enough to play out on the Ed Sullivan Show in the form of a Jim Henson sketch in which switched-on hipster Kermit the Frog tries to educate a square on how to do "visual thinking". Kermit stops short, thankfully, of telling us that the jazzy squiggles he paints across the screen come shrink-wrapped with iLife, but we're well on the way.
In the 1980s the whole swinger / straight binary swings into reverse. Huey Lewis and the News tell us it's hip to be square, while David Byrne writes a song describing a Mr Jones who's no longer the unfunky fellow of the Dylan song. No doubt sporting a mullet, this Mr Jones is busy partying in his hotel room with "salesmen, conventioneers, rock stars with tambourines". I guess those epic oppositions dissolve in alcohol. Under the operating system, we're all pretty much the same.
Someone should probably tell Apple that the "white negro" and the "wizard with numbers who dresses like a gentleman" are sepia bromides. But why ruin such a successful -- and funny -- ad campaign?