Aug 12

Apple ads: a disturbance in the force

“Everyone’s a critic,” goes the old expression. Apple certainly found that out when they chose to debut their new Mac ads on the Olympics.

Thousands of journalists, bloggers and commenters couldn’t resist the lure. That’s because whether you liked the ads or not, they were clearly a departure for Apple.

Personally, I got a ton of comments and emails on this topic. Plus, I happened to be on the road last week and got an earful in real-time — and I wasn’t the guy who kept bringing it up.

In San Francisco, I met with Forbes technology blogger Connie Guglielmo. (She has some great coverage of the Apple-Samsung trial, by the way.) What made her head spin was the fact that Apple has been telling people for decades that its products are easier to use than those of its competitors, and here they are saying that ordinary people need help.

What’s missing for her in these ads is the fact that Apple customers achieve any results by themselves. They seem clueless from the start — like the man on the plane who is befuddled by iMovie. For Connie, it would have been different had the man said “Look, I created this fantastic movie for my wife on our anniversary, I’ve got all these great transitions and titles, I’m just not sure how to add the sepia effect. Can you help?”

Instead, the ads make the customers look lost and frantic from the get-go — which flies in the face of the Apple’s age-old advantage. I think that’s what is making a lot of people uncomfortable.

Thanks to all of you who offered up comments, both for and against. It’s been a fun discussion.

To be honest, I was surprised to find that there are people who can’t accept that Apple’s previous campaign, Mac vs. PC, was a success. I suppose that, like a politician, one could spin the facts any number of ways. But if you’re a marketing person, and you have any grip on reality, you can only conclude that Mac vs. PC was the most successful campaign in Apple history — and one of the most successful in history, period.

It struck a chord with the vast majority of viewers. It became legitimate water-cooler conversation over a period of four years. It lured new customers into the Apple Stores, fueling the relentless growth of Mac’s market share. It gave new ammunition to Apple’s core of enthusiastic supporters. And yes, it did anger a small group of people.

However, we all know that it’s impossible to please everyone, and those offended by this campaign were a tiny minority. In fact, the campaign was so successful, it became part of our culture, spawning hundreds of parodies and imitators.

So why is it okay for Apple to anger a subset of users with the Mac vs. PC campaign, but not okay to do the same with the new Genius campaign?

Simple. In the case of Mac vs. PC, most of the disgruntled viewers were the hard-core PC people Apple had written off eons ago. In the case of the new ads, it’s incurring the wrath of the core supporters who together add up to one of Apple’s most powerful marketing weapons.

There is still room for debate on the new campaign. But you only have to open your eyes to confirm that there is a very real disturbance in the force.

No Apple ad campaign has ever been met with this kind of criticism. Certainly there have been individual clunkers, but in this case we’re talking about a concept that was obviously designed to run over an extended period of time.

I can guarantee that Apple was surprised by the reception to this campaign. So none of us should be surprised when the campaign either changes course significantly or quietly disappears in the months ahead.

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  • Pifman

    I keep thinking that either Apple has had a rare misstep, or they’re a lot smarter than me and know something I don’t. I hope it’s the latter but fear it’s the former.

  • ksegall

    Normally smartness isn’t hidden inside something that seems so un-smart. I vote for rare misstep.

  • jbowns

    First off, the ads remind me of the “Dude! You’re getting a Dell!” guy (whatever happened to him?). Secondly, I feel that you are correct in pointing out the fact that these ads run contrary to Apple’s core successes of making the complex very simple, intuitive and easy to use. Call me old fashioned, but I want my Apple ads to tell a story or to educate me on the product. I know that they are trying to let me know that I can make a quick video with iMovie on an airplane, but why do I need an Apple Genius to accomplish the task if Apple products are so easy and intuitive to produce with? Is this a play to show the strength of Apple’s customer service/support? The whole campaign just seems extremely unoriginal and annoying. 

    Ken, this is my first post but I have read all of your previous stuff on this blog. Excellent analysis and great for a young marketing entrepreneur like myself to get a look into the mind of the greats that have come before me. Keep it up and thank you!

  • Benjamin Zigterman

    Maybe they are out there, but I haven’t seen the ads since the first weekend of the Olympics.

  • Kevin Fitzgerald

    Apple’s support model after the sale is nothing but condescending and smug. 
    Under-educated 20 somethings that just follow a step by step guide does not make a genius. Unless I missed it when that definition was changed.

    Perhaps all the people that they attracted with the intelligent Mac vs. PC campaign do not like to feel insulted by what is in reality a college student making slightly more than minimum wage.

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  • As Apple has confirmed, the ads were only meant for a short run during the beginning of the Olympics.

  • “the ads remind me of the “Dude! You’re getting a Dell!” guy (whatever happened to him?).”

    He got caught with marijuana and Dell fired him.

  • Chytin

    That was a very interesting interview (via Mac Rumors) you did for the museum. I just bought your book on iBook store. Cannot wait to read it.

  • Sounds like you’ve never met an Apple genius.   Sure they are regular employees who have been given advanced training, but they are not smug and they are not condescending.

    This is something you are projecting onto them, because like most apple haters you can’t debate apple’s better products so you attack apple users and employees. 

    The real question is, why would you think anyone would fall for it?

  • The campaign is not that bad.   In fact, it isn’t bad at all.  It only seems bad because Apple has such a stellar history of superlative advertising.  It is mediocre. 

    It will be very interesting to see what they follow it up with.  So far, we’re back to iPad advertising, which is safe, and we’ll have iPhone advertising after the new announcements I’m sure… probably won’t get mac ads until a new campaign can be conceived…. and I suspect this time they will wait until they have something really good.

  • WFA67

    At Apple, it seems to me that the person with the final call on advertising should also be someone who really ‘gets’ what’s cool, not just someone who can parrot the word ‘incredible’ a few dozen times in a presentation.

  • sarumbear

    Compare to iOS devices’ success in the market, Macs were never anything other than a niche product. Look at the graph in this article. http://www.theinquirer.net/inquirer/news/2153290/apples-ios-takes-double-mac-sales

    It took just two years for iPad to sell as many Macs were sold in 22 years!

    Macs are the Bang & Olufsen of the computer world. People who like it will buy it, no matter what. I don’t see the point of Apple to continue to spend money on Mac ads. In the past Macs were the only product Apple had, but not any more. Mac is irrelevant now both in sales and in revenue and it is not going to get better.

    They lost the desktop and won huge in mobile. Why advertise the range that you are not successful?

  • ksegall

    Since Apple’s resurgence, it has raised its market share in computers from a puny 1-2% to over 10%. Given the number of computers sold in this world, that represents a very big chunk of change. Computers may not be the biggest part of Apple’s profits anymore, but thanks to Apple’s profit margins it makes far more money in computers than the PC companies do. Last report I saw, Apple’s share of the total profits generated by computer sales is greater than all the PC companies combined. HP has to sell seven PCs to equal the profit Apple makes by selling one (http://bit.ly/NnB1zM).

    So… the answer to your question is that Apple advertises computers because it still makes a ton of money in this market — and its sales are still growing, having outpaced PC growth for something like 24 quarters now. Sales grew especially well during the years that they ran the Mac vs. PC campaign — which demonstrates the value of running good ads vs. the ones they just ran.

  • sarumbear

    Yes, they still do a ton of money from computer sales, but a huge chunk of it comes from laptop sales; mobile computer again.

    I think the reason why the last ads are not good is because Apple does not have anything decent to say for the Mac, as a computer. Whereas, they have loads to say for their mobile products.

    I still think advertising Macs as just computers is not clever. Then again, who am I to argue with you my friend. :-)

  • ksegall

    Your last line probably meant that it isn’t smart of Apple to be advertising Macs as computers. But your use of “clever” is exactly my problem with the new batch of ads. They weren’t clever as we come to expect from Apple when it communicates with us. Had the ads been funny and provocative (like Mac vs. PC was), they would have positively affected those in the market for a computer, and they would also have contributed to the overall Apple brand. But alas…

  • sarumbear

    Indeed that is what I meant but not for the same reason as you.

    I think the ads “weren’t clever as we come to expect from Apple when it communicates with us” because there is nothing clever to tell any more. Apple cannot find anything to say other than “Macs are easy to use once you know how”, which is the central message of these ads.

    Macbooks are copied by the market (at least cosmetically) and desktop computer market has disappeared. OS X is now almost unusable by power users and media creators, who either switched to Windows or proper Linux. What else could have they said about Macs: You can use with your fingers as well like you can with an iPad for a third of the cost?

    We are witnessing the demise of the Mac and that is why the mighty Apple is faltering. Apple’s is acting like a once proud father would when his child has lost the winning touch.

    But, I agree, Macs will stay with us for a while. Because of the size and efficiency of Apple, even an unsuccessful product can bring in money for them and that is the bottom line.

  • sarumbear

     Just one question: Do you own an Apple product and had arrange for genius bar meeting about it?

    It seems to me that you have not.