There was something that always bothered me about the Mac commercials purporting to show me how hip Mac computers are. It’s that I never really felt included in the world of those ads.
Mac computers are personified by a uber-cool geek-chic attractive young white man. PCs, of course take on the flesh of a somewhat portly, a bit older, less attractive white man whose geek is unredeemed by any hint of cool. Did I mention they are both white men? In ad after ad after ad, we see these two white men portray personal computers to the viewing audience. You can watch the collection of ads from 2006 on at this site.
As each new ad came along, I kept wondering: does Apple think all computer users are white guys? Who do they imagine is the audience for their ads?
Do they really have to work that hard to solidify identification of the computer with white and male? There’s a particularly unfortunate ad from 2006, titled “Better Results”, in which Mac’s product, a video, is a voluptuous, sexy, accented female, while PC produces a scruffy man in drag by comparison. It’s as bad as a car ad with some sexy hot chick in a long gown slathering herself across the hood of a vehicle. You, Mr. White Male Mac User, may be a geek, but you are a cool one! And you will get hot chicks!
There is the “Genius” ad in 2007, with a woman playing the Mac Genius. It’s a curious ad, though; PC asks what a Mac Genius is, Mac Genius looks like she’s about to answer and then, like a typical guy, Mac interrupts and answers for her. In any case, Mac Genius is in a service position, as is the other woman appearing in that year’s ads, PR Lady. In 2008′s “Off the Air”, a non-white woman portrays Mac Genius but again Mac explains her job for her and she gets to talk very little. Women pop up in “Pep Rally” as – wait, you’ll never believe it! – cheer leaders! There’s also a yoga instructor in “Yoga” who at least appears to be a PC user, and some sort of counselor in “Breakthrough”. But the unrelenting message of this long-running series of commercials is that computers, whether Mac or PC, are for the white boys. I doubt this was the message Mac intended to send, but it’s the one that gets read. It’s really driven home by “Time Machine” (2008), where the hip young white dude simultaneously portrays Mac and a series of backed-up files on a Mac. Or “Tech Support” (2007), where the IT guy is, you guessed it, a nerdy white guy wearing glasses.
If you weren’t absolutely convinced, though, you could watch “Group” (2008), with the all-male group of “PC’s Living With Vista”. There is indeed a token non-white dude, probably included to keep Mac from looking completely racist, but women don’t even get to portray PC when there’s a whole group of PCs on stage.
This is because the Mac commercials depend upon the stereotype of the PC user as a geeky un-cool white dude. Women, by virtue of their gender, are simply unable to convey this stereotype to the world. Okay, that might be a great marketing technique. But what image does Mac choose to bounce off the PC stereotype? The cool geek of another white dude, sans glasses. Wow, that’s really radically different.
By now you’ve probably seen the new PC commercial:
It’s a striking comeback to the Mac commercials it mocks. I have to say that Mac set itself up perfectly for this rebuttal ad. On the one hand, Mac’s white boy against a white backdrop, pointing out Mac’s technical superiority; on the other hand, image after colorful image of a diverse array of PC-using individuals in every imaginable setting talking not about the geeky-cool technical aspects of the computer, but of the interesting fabulous things they do. It’s a far more powerful and dynamic image than what Mac’s offering.
It literally starts out, “I’m a PC, and I’ve been made into a stereotype.” Ouch! Everybody knows stereotyping is a bad thing to do! You want to call us a bunch of nerdy white boys? We’ll show you just how diverse and fabulous we really are! We get our geek on and go out and change the world. (There’s also a web site to go with the ad campaign.)
I consider myself a fairly skeptical t.v. viewer and am generally vigilant for the ways in which ads attempt to manipulate us. And yet, I couldn’t help feeling what the ad’s creators wanted me to feel – some sense of identification with the individuals in the ad and a sense of pride in belonging, as a PC user, to that group. In the end, what I really appreciate is the acknowledgment that someone like me is in the audience and I suspect that other previously un-addressed group members will feel the same. We’ve been recognized, and not in the patronizing manner of this Dell catalog cover that showed up in my mailbox earlier this year.
Ooh, so pretty in pink!
Somebody needs a shoe-pukin’.
This is not how to talk to women about computers. It reminds me of the famous story from Ms Magazine’s early history, when they tried to get Lionel trains to advertise with them. Lionel told them “girls don’t want toy trains. We made a pink one once and nobody bought it.” (I read this in the first issue of the reconstituted Ms Magazine, when they began publishing again without ads.)
Of course the new PC ad is manipulative – all ads are – but at least it’s manipulative in a good way, in celebration of diversity. It cracks wide open the image of who, exactly, computer users might be, and what they might be doing with their computers. Mac may or may not be the superior computer choice, but the world vision it offers in its commercials is an impoverished one, and that’s a shame.