A week ago Apple launched a new advertising campaign, and there's widespread relief in the Mac community that the pious and self-satisfied "Think Different" advertisements (beautifully parodied by Momus here*) have been put out to pasture. And replaced by successors which get low and dirty, and try to explain exactly why the Mac might be better than a PC.
Ease of use is a strong suite for Apple - particularly with its recent consumer apps - so unusually for advertising, this is a new campaign which promises to something approaching the truth. It's a strong premise, but what sinks it is the execution.
Quite frankly, this new ad campaign is terrifying. No, it's worse than that - it's a theatre of cruelty that makes victims of Apple's loyal Macintosh user base.
The good news is that the 'Real People' featured in the ads are devoid of patronizing goofiness. That's quite Jobsian too: he's consistently promoted education - even when no one was listening - as the best way in which people can rise above low expectations by peers, family or society. So there's no need to give us caricatures, like Dell does with its witless sopho-moronic "Dell-guy".
The bad news is that Apple couldn't have picked a starker collection of life's losers with which to promote the Macintosh.
Here in unforgiving relief are a collection of scarred, terrified refugees from life - for whom the computer is alternately a punishment surrogate, a child substitute or a masturbation object. They're framed in high contrast and against a white background, perhaps an unconscious homage to Persona - with characters in states of psychological extremes.
These people are so freaky that if one sat next to you on the bus, you'd suddenly find yourself wondering if walking home might be an altogether less traumatic option.
"It's like being stuck in a bad relationship!" says one 'Mark Frauenfelder'. But you only need to take one look at the boy to know that not only is he probably he an expert on the subject, but he's the kind of twitchy, self-loathing bore from whom women flee.
Then there's a ferocious dominatrix type, called 'Sarah Whistler'. Behind those green eyes is dismay and contempt, and it's reflected in her punch line. You can almost hear the smack of her dom's whip on bare buttocks as she contemptuously dispatches another sacrifice - "Goodbye, horrid little man".
Actually she doesn't say that. She says - "Goodbye, horrid little machine" … but you don't need to be Freud to discern the subtext here.
"It is my friend," says one 'Dianne Dyruff'.
"I think we'll have another little iBook in the family soon!" she concludes, revealing a fetish every bit as bizarre as Furries.
Surely 'Real People' don't pretend that computers are their friends, or their children? How sad is that?
And what are we to make of 'Damon Wright' [parental caution advised]: an immaculately manicured (always a bad sign), post-dot.com Manson Family cultist distinguished by a moustache that weaves a seamless and sinister 'w' between his nose and his upper lip. What the 'w' means, only Damon himself knows. But we present the following screen-grab to suggest that what Damon really, really wants probably isn't a Macintosh at all:-
Where could you find such a bunch of losers except at a singles bar - and then only on a Monday night, when they'd reckon on less competition.
But the final humiliation - and this is really quite shocking in its callousness - is administered by the soundtrack. Each "switcher's" tale is accompanied by a slow mocking balalaika score which invites us to laugh at, not with, their inadequacies … as if to suggest: these clownish boobs were simply too dumb to get to grips with a PC.
Surely this is the opposite of what Apple really wants to suggest? But the message is a mass of conflicting signals.
Having portrayed the Mac as the computer for over-achievers, it's now suggesting that it's a kind of refugee camp for life's most bitter losers. Now you might think we're being exceptionally cruel - but imagine the same characters in a different context, and in different lighting, and without the mocking score, doing stuff the rest of us might do. They'd be altogether more human. Sarah Whistler, for example, has a brave, strong face, and looks like she has some stories to tell. Dianne is pretty cute - but like the others, the art direction has mugged them of their humanity.
Why does this campaign turn a gold message into base metal?
Primarily, because the bitterness is so out of place in selling an expensive consumer product.
Unless you die young, life - the long inevitable progression to become worm food - is a succession of disappointments. None of us will ever be as sexy, or as funny as we'd wish to be, or never achieve quite as much as we might have. But we can still bear that voyage with as much generosity and as little blame as we can muster. You can spot life's losers a mile away: because they have a hump about something - about blacks, or Jews, or grubby proles - but they're really just rueing their own fuck-ups: bad decisions or squandered opportunities.
Look into the pubs of England - for every Mark E. Smith, who channeled his hate into creating fabulous new vistas of satire, there are a ten thousand bitter men who hate anything young or beautiful or talented, because it reminds of their own failure of courage.
Apple's "Real Losers" campaign is like being press-ganged into an after hours lock-in with such losers.
And as we suggested earlier: Apple could best illustrate the benefits of switching with a few safe empirical facts. Why not get straight to the point: and Apple's consumer suite is a fine example:- iTunes vs the twiddly WinAmp, anyone? Or iTunes vs the leviathan Windows Media Player? Or iPhoto vs anything? Why not show the instant sleep and wake-up? Why not show off Jaguar's Rendezvous, one of the year's most stunning demos? Or the near noiseless iMac and silent iBook against their nasty and instrusive Wintel equivalents?
(I had to use a Windows machine for the first time in months recently - and I'd forgotten that to close a window, you use Alt+F4. That's Alt+F4, for heaven's sake! On the Mac, on KDE and Gnome, and on BeOS it's modifier-W. This is despite fifteen years of muscle memory. It's shocking to be reminded how clumsy Windows can be.)**
Instead Apple has very expensively created a caricature of what PC users think Mac users are: people who just couldn't hack it, and have bolted for a niche. This isn't what the script calls for, but it's what the visuals and audio tell us, and the two jar horribly.
A curious digression: the ads were shot by Errol Morris, a student of the great German auteur Werner Herzog. (Fitzcarraldo, Kasper Hauser). Like you-know-who, Herzog had strong ecological sense, but was a notorious micro-manager and impossible egomaniac (in a recent interview Herzog talked about himself in the third person). But although he was frequently accused of being manipulative, Herzog has always been a very compassionate film maker and never tried to denude his subjects, as Morris/Apple does here, of their humanity.
And as such, it's an unmitigating psychological disaster - an error on the scale of rebranding Coke. I've been comfortable with my iBook in the most techie circles for months. Now I'm suddenly cautious - fearing I might be lumped in with Apple's single-club switchers, as a lost cause. This isn't cute, and ordinary Apple users need to fight back hard against this campaign, which essentially creates victims out of users.
Ars Technica's CPU editor Jon 'Hannibal' Stokes - one of many people who earlier called for a hands-on offensive - gave the "Real Losers" campaign a really eloquent write-up:-
"Too bad the execution isn't so hot … They're kind of like watching Gap ads written and directed by a BF-trolling platform zealot. And here's to hoping that Apple will never again stoop to desecrating the image of a great advocate for the poor like Cesar Chavez in order to hawk shiny plastic computers to an almost solely upscale demographic."
Amen to that.
Any bets on how long this cruel and ill-conceived campaign will run? ®
*This is Serge Gainsbourg, who wrote the best farting novel ever.
**Microsoft isn't to blame for this peculiarity, but it is to blame for not fixing it. Alt+F4 to close a window dates back to IBM's Common User Access guidelines, shared between OS/2 and Windows, and Motif adopted these too. Along with the peculiar CUA clipboard shortcuts. But by 1993 and Windows 3.1, Microsoft had the courage to adopt the Mac-like Ctrl-X/C/V sequence, and discard all the Alt+ window shortcuts… except for the one that really matters. See this thread from alt.folklore.computers for more.