Jul 12

New Mac ads: landing with a serious thud

[Update 9.23.12: Apple has pulled all of the Genius ads from its website and YouTube channel. Personal postings have been removed as well. Sorry, looks like all evidence has been destroyed.}

Repeat after me: “The sky is not falling. The sky is not falling.”

I know it’s hard to say after viewing the new batch of Mac ads that debuted on the Olympics. I’m still in a bit of shock myself.

Sure, Apple has had a low point or two in its advertising past — but its low points are usually higher than most advertisers’ high points.

This is different. These ads are causing a widespread gagging response, and deservedly so. I honestly can’t remember a single Apple campaign that’s been received so poorly.

This thing is so upsetting, it has me talking to myself:

“Ken, you’re missing the obvious. Clearly these ads are targeted at first-timers, not for you.”

That’s a seemingly logical defense. It’s also a horrible one. How many great campaigns have you seen that appeal to one target group, but turn off everyone else? There’s no excuse for a campaign like that. Apple’s momentum is fueled by the enthusiasm of its core customers. The last thing it wants is to win new customers at the cost of looking ridiculous to its enthusiastic supporters.

“But how can one campaign appeal to both crowds?”

How soon we forget. If it pleases the court, I present Exhibit A: the now-legendary Mac vs. PC campaign, which delivered 66 fantastic ads over a period of four years. Like the new campaign, Mac vs. PC was also aimed at switchers, but guess what — it was a massive hit with every level of Mac owner, from novice to pro. Those ads actually galvanized the Mac crowd to heavy up on the preaching. And look at the iPad ads. They’re hugely attractive to people who never got the technology bug. But they’re also alluring to those who have been using computers for years. Hmm. Maybe it can be done? To defend the new Mac ads by saying “Hey, they’re not aimed at you” is just a naive view of advertising.

“The Apple Genius idea is really rich. What’s your problem?”

Actually, I agree. The “idea” is pretty good. I’m not convinced it’s worthy of an ongoing campaign, but there is some good comedy in the basic concept. The problem is, a good idea is only half of the winning formula in advertising. The other half is execution — and that’s where this campaign went south.

“Be honest now. That Genius guy is perfectly cast.”

You’re kidding, right? He does an excellent job of fitting the stereotype of an Apple Store Genius, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. These spots are actually cast as if they’re sitcoms — with exaggerated characters like the father-to-be in Labor Day, or the passenger in Mayday, or the sleezy PC store owner in Basically. The spots try to make their points through comedy alone, with little sense of authenticity in characters or situations.

“I laughed out loud more than once.”

I did think that concept of Mayday was funny. But the smiles were mighty hard to come by after that. If you’re going to go the sitcom route — and that’s a very big “if” — you’ll need some writers who are up to the task. The script for Basically just makes me squirm. It’s like going to open mike night at the local comedy club.

“I did wonder if it was a good idea to make customers seem so clueless.”

Therein lies another problem with this campaign. In the effort to show that the Genius is the most helpful guy in the world, Apple has created customers who, shall we say, are on the dim side. In past ads, Apple has shown “ordinary people doing extraordinary things,” simply because Apple products are so easy to use. Now we have thick people who want to be better, but need a Genius to help. Not exactly flattering.

“But the Genius is a great hook. This campaign could go on forever.”

Please, kill me now. Nothing would depress me more. With the Mac vs. PC campaign, Apple created fictional characters who together told an engaging story. There seemed to be infinite ways to keep the stories fresh. This is different. The idea of creating a “character” from an Apple employee is… well…. damn, I can’t even say this without feeling awful… it feels like something Best Buy would do. Maybe even Dell. Between the writing, casting, directing and production, this campaign has a very “local” feel to it. It doesn’t have the feel of quality that has defined previous Apple advertising.

“These ads are very unexpected. Isn’t that what Apple’s all about?”

It’s great to be unexpected. But if you’re not true to the brand, being unexpected just makes you look silly. The Mac vs. PC campaign was unexpected, but its cleverness was in sync with the Apple brand. Absolutely, these ads are very unexpected for Apple — just not of the quality we’re used to.

“You don’t think these ads are a hoot? Some of the gags hit my funny bone.”

You’re scaring me. Stop talking like that. The point is that Apple has always had an intelligent wit. This campaign, not so much.

“My friends think it’s great.”

Well, I can only give you my opinion. However, I will add that within 24 hours of these ads hitting the air, I got a load of email from Apple fans who were terribly disappointed. Not one positive comment. What I did get were comments like “I’m speechless,” “Atrocity” and “Horrifically bad.” Honestly, I’ve never seen such a reaction before. So again, if your defense is that people like us are not the target, snap out of it. I seriously doubt that Apple wants its loyal customers to feel this kind of embarrassment.

“Well, your friends are as deluded as you.”

I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that. The reactions out in the real world seem to be at least as negative as the ones I’ve received. I was struck by the Tweet from Jean Louis–Gassée, former Apple head of Macintosh, which said “Ouch! Cringe-inducing new Apple ‘Genius’ ads for Mac.” Reader comments on various articles are even more colorfully negative. Apple can’t be happy about this.

“Sorry, but Apple and its agency have a lot of smart people. Surely they know what they’re doing.”

I’m totally with you on that. That’s what so many people find perplexing. How does a campaign like this come out of such a smart and creative group? One can’t help but wonder what kind of debate took place leading up to this. Or maybe there was no debate and all parties thought this would be a killer campaign. If that’s the case, I hope this experience causes some serious introspection.

“Do you think Steve Jobs would have approved these ads?”

Now you’re making me mad. I will never answer a “What would Steve do” question and I hate it when people speculate like that. None of us can possibly know what Steve would do. Steve was a master marketer, but he was also perfectly capable of a lapse in judgment. It’s unfortunate that this campaign is appearing now, nine months after Steve passed away, because the timing only fuels the argument that everything will crumble now that Steve is gone. I don’t buy that.

The truth is, advertising is hard. A lot of really talented people at Chiat pour their hearts into creating the ads that we critique. As you know, Apple’s ads succeed far more often than they fail — just like Apple itself. Every one of us, Steve Jobs included, has experienced failure. It may sound trite, but it’s how one responds to failure and what one learns from the experience that defines character, whether you’re an individual or a corporation.

“So is the sky falling or not? You’re confusing me.” 

The fact is, bad ads happen. And sometimes they happen to really good people. The tragedy would be if Apple acted like a politician and dug in its heels for the sake of appearances. I don’t think that will happen. Apple is good at fixing mistakes — and this is one that could use a major-league fixing.

The two other spots in this campaign are Mayday and  Labor Day.

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  • HammerOfTruth

    Nah, they make more than that.  $11.50 is what a specialist usually starts out at.

  • Souce New York Times, they interviewed hundreds of Apple Geniuses, they make $11.50 an hour and they have crap work hours. Sales people working at Verizon, Best Buy, Fry’s can make a lot more because they are paid a commission. Apple Geniuses are supposed to want the job because they are Apple fanboys, they have to be enthusiastic about recommending consumers buy overpriced terrible value Apple crapware and then when paid their salary they are always being screwed by Apple.

  • madmaxmedia

    I’m not in love with them, but I don’t think they’re horrible. I feel like they are taking that step from being an ‘aspirational’ brand, to a more friendly, populist image. Everybody and their mother owns an iPhone already, so this time was going to come. The ads are a bit off in tone IMO, so execution is only average (and thus a fail relatively speaking for Apple.)

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  • Sad part is that it negates the whole “Macs are easy to use” image… it’s as if you’re too stupid to figure out something a 6 year old could do… or they’re too difficult to use that you need to resort to consulting a “Genius” (Sheldon Cooper would be horrified) to even use Keynote or iMovie.

  • JF

    This really cracked me, because after seeing the “Basically” ad for the first time, my wife and I turned to each other and groaned, That was like a Best Buy commercial.  Then we read this, here, “I can’t even say this without feeling awful… it feels like something Best Buy would do.”

  • Arn_Thor

    basically and that other forgettable one were awful, I grant you that. But mayday was fun though and through. Over-the-top and loving itself for it, practically standing naked in front of a mirror greasing itself up with strawberry jam, dancing slowly and… wait, what?

  • Nelso80

    You’ve got to look at the innovative beer commercials.  Heineken was mentioned before, and honestly, the “Most Interesting Man” Dos Equis commercials appeal to everyone, and does make it’s customers feel special and brings in occassional and new beer drinkers into its fold.

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  • gjgustav

    That’s why I said American beer commercials. Heineken is Dutch. I thought Dos Equis was not American, but I could be wrong.

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  • Confilm

    You buy a Mac and instantly you know how to use it. No C Drive, no hitting START to shut down… 
    This campaign is so off the mark that it’s embarrassing. And where’s the music? Apple has always deftly scored their pieces within minutes of current trends.
    The Genius Campaign is anything but.

  • I totally agree with the sentiments, it’s a low point.   In the Mac vs. PC guy, I chuckled and saved those commercials.   The iPod and think different ones were also equally great.

  • sridvijay

    Somebody’s gotten their panties in a twist. Phil has been with Apple since the beginning. To say that he is the problem here is absurd. Tim, maybe so, he needs to be much more strict with this shit. Phil on the other hand, no way in hell is he causing the “downfall” of Apple. He’s one of the masterminds who caused the “uprising” of Apple.

  • Think the same.

  • philnolan3d

    The vast majority of apple’s commercials are full of blatant lies and insults to customers intelligence. These are bad but the “mac vs. pc” ones were the worst by far.

  • timrpeterson

    Apple’s advertising has always been overrated and pompous.
    I’m not sure what the big deal is now. 
    The buyers that make up Apple’s wheelhouse including myself buy Apple products because they are good and other ones are worse. 

  • Agreed. I’ve been a mac user from my first IIsi. They’ve had some flops but they’ve never been so…ordinary.

  • Roooting

    These guys are not making a whole lot of sense man, WOw.


  • Jumping Jesus Christ on a pogo stick.

    I can’t decide if your are pathologically pedantic, a troll, or doing a “Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons” performance art piece.

  • slidesthatrock

    Thank you Ken! I was thinking of you when I saw these ads. Yes, not impressed either. I will agree with other comments on this site. The ads are very ordinary and it was actually painful to watch. I would expect Apple to stand out and show us they still ‘Think Different’. Chiat (if it is really you) and Apple, you can do a lot better! You are not Best Buy!

  • kwool

    Let me understand this: you rail against the stereotype of the Genius employee while simultaneously exalting the preconceived identities provided and even celebrated in the Mac vs. PC ads?  


  • Nospam

    This was exactly my reaction, it’s a copy of the dell ads from 5 years ago- and they weren’t that good. I wonder if apple can survive without jobs, because these ads suck ass and that’s a troubling sign.

  • Nospam

    Yes- the billions of dollars that goes into advertising and the millions of people employed by ad agencies is pointless.

  • Reminds me of “Dude, you’re getting a Dell!”

  • Let me understand this, you make comments based on your fantasy land view of the world, and think that people are hypocrites when their assessment of reality doesn’t jibe with your fantasy?


  • Marguerita

    The Genius seems like he has no idea why everyone is asking him about this stuff on his day off.

  • William JTomlin

    They are terribly cheesy.

  • Mchellec

    Couldn’t agree with this blog more! I definitely am of the opinion that previous spots were polished and represented Apple much better. But alas, who am I ? (Actually I’m one of those who saw Scott Forstall as a successor to Steve Jobs and not Tim Cook. Ok, call me crazy!!)

  • Mchellec

    Lest I forget to mention: the type of approach in the ads are those I expect from Apple’s competitors. This may sound rather ‘snobby’ however I like to think I’m using a much inferior product from a company that does not stoop to the advertising (lack of) Genius as others in the same market….

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  • Bill

    I read the first part of the article and was thinking “oh my god.  I gotta see these ads and see what’s wrong with them.”  I watched the first one and laughed.  I enjoyed it.  So I was thinking the others must be the bad ones.  They’re good.  I like em.  I don’t get what any of the fuss is about.  And I’ve been a mac user since almost day 1 so not exactly a new user coming to the mac.
    The “basically” one is probably the weakest.  But it makes good points with putting out the names of the free included software that’s awesome.  The labor day one is cute.  I laughed and laughed at the mayday one.  It’s my fav of the 3.  “Let’s do this” – the wedding movie guy says getting up to help.  haha!  That was good.

  • Samanjj

    i tend to agree with you mate. we look like the minority in most forums but i loved them, watched them many times and really enjoyed the fact that Apple wasn’t take itself too seriously and was no longer coming across as talking down to switchers. I think to be honest the ads show maturity and a new sense of confidence that was not present before.

  • Samanjj

    i have a story for you. most people i know see the “macs are easy to use” ads, go and try to use them and find they are easier or just different to use than windows but no walk in the park. they get pissed off at the false advertising and complain to apple fans like me that it’s all hype. no more! these ads show that there is always help for those that find them hard to use.

  • Samanjj

    ok if mac sales grow quicker man. seriously?

  • Samanjj

    smarmy: ingratiating and wheedling in a way that is regarded as insincere or excessive. ok which ad were you watching. i wanted to hang out with that guy – he was sweet, nice and very helpful

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  • The ads are good or bad, we are now talking about it… that’s what the ultimate aim of every AD.

    If  these ads were super awesome, we would have neglected them by saying “oh! it’s Apple’s ad and they are always awesome.. nothing new about it ” . But now we are talking about by wondering why these ads are just ordinary… 
    ( but  we still agree that  whatever is the ad, Apple’s products are just awesome )

  • Legforsale

    Everyone knows if you really need help you call AppleCare, That’s who the Genius Bar calls when they can’t figure it out. 

  • LifeforSale

    ^This guy needs a life

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  • Those ads don’t emphasize the real advantage of the Apple Genius Bar – tech support.  You have a problem, bring your computer down to the store for some face-to-face support.  Versus calling some PC tech support line and trying to explain your problem over the phone to someone (often someone overseas with an accent).

    Two problems with emphasizing the above.  (1) Apple does not want to talk about things going wrong with the computer, and (2) there is no real way to make tech support cool or hip.

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  • silly iZombie.

    mac sales were down 10% in the last quarter.


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  • It’s like “Dude, you’re getting a Dell” complete with similar pot-addled kid.