Thus Spake Zuska

PC vs Mac: Race and Gender in Advertising

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.

i-f4e3ea205db263ceeeb656a6b3d7c889-dell pink [320x200].jpg

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Dave Munger
    October 1, 2008

    The PC ad is completely derivative of the Mac ad, but it’s not bad. I do think the female psychoanalyst character in the Mac vs. PC ads is presented in quite a positive light, but otherwise, you’re right. I had never noticed the Mac always interrupts the genius.

  2. #2 The Ridger
    October 1, 2008

    Amen. I love that PC commercial – and, like you, I know it’s trying to make me love it. But at least it understands what I want to see.

  3. #3 The Ridger
    October 1, 2008

    ps – since that comment showed up while I was making mine – it’s not “derivative”. It’s just based on it – springboarding off it.

  4. #4 Ken Shabby
    October 1, 2008

    Deepak Chopra? Why would they poison their own ad? They’re insane.

  5. #5 Ian
    October 1, 2008

    The Mac ads reach me in the way that the PC ads do not. I rarely get a “I want that” reaction from advertising, but these ads generate that feeling (despite the fact that I remain a PC user).

    Late 30s, male, mixed-race…identify as non-white, but I “pass”. Like Dave, I never noticed that the Mac always interrupts the Genius – probably says that I’m more of a sexist than I think I am.

    I don’t like the PC ads. They feel too “United Colours of Benetton”…too contrived. I love to see diversity on TV, but it has to feel genuine. This doesn’t.

  6. #6 decrepitoldfool
    October 1, 2008

    Even though I chuckle at them, I am offput by the Mac/PC commercials because I resemble the older white male who is clearly represented as unattractive. Except for added measure, I am also bald.

    I hated Macs for years. Only recently I began recommending Macs to people, after Apple made some fundamental improvements. But the commercials should focus on getting work done more quickly and less stressfully. Not everyone wants to be ‘cool’ and some of us know how delusional it would be for us to try. From the company’s perspective, the only advantage to this campaign is it tends to be viral, or was before it became a cliche.

  7. #7 Becca
    October 1, 2008

    It is a pretty good ad.
    I mean ultimately the commercial is just a much more warm ‘n fuzzy version of the statement “everyone uses PCs”… but yeah. +1 to at least it understands what makes me feel warm ‘n fuzzy.
    I mean, I can’t personally identify much with Deepak Chopra, but I can certainly identify with some of the other people… a lot more than I identify with MacDude, anyway.

    In fairness to MacDude, if all the young people I knew used Macs and all the old ones uses PCs- that is, if the sterotype resonated- I’m not sure I’d be as distainful of the manufactured us[youth=Mac] vs. them[old=PC]. You can’t trust anyone over thirty, right?* ;-)

    *(except for ultra-cool-and-hip Bloggers, of course)

  8. #8 Amar
    October 1, 2008

    Zuska,
    I realize that i will probably get slammed for suggesting it, but i think you are reading a little too much into the Mac ads. As a non-white person myself, i am usually very keen to notice the ‘whiteness’ of everything around me. However, i have always thought (and still do think)that the idea that the Mac ads were pushing is the glorification of Steve Jobs at the expense of Bill Gates. The ‘whiteness’ of the characters being more related to the figureheads of the companies than any ‘image’ they are trying to portray.

  9. #9 Warren
    October 1, 2008

    This points to a larger discussion about diversity in advertising that is hardly new; I know of at least one blog (MultiCultClassics) that’s dedicated to this concept alone.

    Oh — I think Chopra’s inclusion was meant to be ironic.

  10. #10 Larry Ayers
    October 1, 2008

    It’s too bad the Linux and open source software world isn’t a commercial entity with money for adverising. I’d love to see a comparable Linux ad!

    I’ve attempted to install Linux for some female friends over the years, with no luck at all. I think it might be due to a basic difference between male and female psychology. Most Linux geeks are male; I think it is because of the typical male’s interest in tinkering rather than in just Getting Something Done.

    I’m on Vicodin after an operation, so forgive me if I’ve treaded on any toes!

  11. #11 Kea
    October 1, 2008

    The PC add is still sexist! Yeah, OK, so everybody uses PCs, but the geniuses are still nerdy looking white guys, while the pretty woman wearing a wedding ring lies by the pool. The implication is, yeah sure she uses a PC, but probably to go shopping.

  12. #12 Becca
    October 1, 2008

    I know what Kea’s getting at. I think the gender-representation thing would have been so very much better if only the guy who says “I study genes” had been a woman, and the woman who says “and I design jeans” had been a guy.
    I want my gender-role revolution, and I want it yesterday!

  13. #13 Samia
    October 1, 2008

    I’m kind of put off by the partnerships between Mac and some universities. The “computer” section of my bookstore really only caters to Mac users. I think a lot of students want Macs because they’re cute or something. I don’t get it. Same with the iPod thing…I actually heard someone say they *needed* the new Nano. Need? Really?

  14. #14 Matt Springer
    October 1, 2008

    One of those silly pictures you see around various humor sites shows the PC and Mac guys from the Mac commercials, and it’s captioned something like this:

    “These two guys show up at your office for a job interview. Who do you hire?”

    It’s got a point.

  15. #15 jaja
    October 1, 2008

    Mac ads don’t feature women because REAL women build their own PC. Nuff said ;)

  16. #16 yolio
    October 2, 2008

    Your basic observation about the whiteness and maleness of the apple ads is bang on, although it hardly stands out as unusual. But I am not overly impressed by the PC ad either. I see this ad as being part of current trend in advertising to use non-whiteness as code for hip, dynamic, creative, forward thinking. As in, “Look at how cool we are, we have a black friend!” Importantly, the person of color, or woman, is never permitted to play a central role. They are never the CEO, they never personify the meaning of mac-ness. They are always a fashion accessory meant to illustrate the forward thinking hipness of the white/male central actor. I don’t think that the PC ad really improves on this problem.

  17. #17 yogi-one
    October 2, 2008

    You, Mr. White Male Mac User, may be a geek, but you are a cool one! And you will get hot chicks!

    Whoa! Getting Mac will Increase my chances of successfully mating with the female gender?

    Is it OK if I get a used ibook on Craiglist, or do I need a new big G5 quad-core machine – I mean- does size matter?

  18. #18 MarkusR
    October 2, 2008

    The main difference here is that MS ads talks about the users, while the Mac ad talks about the computer itself.

    Had they used a non-white, non-male person portray either the Mac or the PC in the Mac commercial, the other person would have also had to have been of the same gender/race. Otherwise the PC-gender/race would be portrait as inferior to whatever gender/race the Mac would have been. That is never going to work.

    Maybe it is time to stop using people as props in commercials. Just display a simple “a > b” text and be done with it.

  19. #19 julius
    October 2, 2008

    Erm, yogi-one, “new” and “G5″ don’t really go together considering they haven’t made them for about two years now.

    But seriously, I see the problem here and I don’t think you can entirely blame Apple for it. Partly because of yolio’s point – including a non-white/non-male character isn’t something that’s done casually, because it also carries various specific connotations. A “generic” person is still assumed to be white and male. Would it be nice if this changed? Sure. Can we expect Apple to compromise the emotional “message” they’re trying to convey with these ads? It would be nice if they did, but realistically, no.

  20. #20 Rob
    October 2, 2008

    In an ad with two characters, if both of them are white men then the ad is racist and sexist.

    And if there is a woman in the ad, she has to be a central character. And smarter than everyone else. And feminine, but not *too* feminine. And she has to talk first, and gets to answer every question. (Seriously—the “genius” talks more than anyone in the relevant ads and the complaint is that the Mac is allowed a single line in each one?)

    And any ads that do meet these conditions (“Counselor”, “PR Lady”, “Breakthrough” ; the majority of Apple’s “Switcher” ads) are thrown out of the sample.

    And of course that “Time Machine” ad is blatantly racist. It’s bad enough that Justin Long is white when there’s one of him, but when there are twenty clones of him wouldn’t statistics dictate that at least *one* Justin Long is a girl?

    Honestly, this is the kind of nonsense that gets people to tune out modern feminism. Lobbying to increase the usage of half-black-businesswoman stock photos in ads beyond its already-absurd level is unlikely to address any of the real problems with race and gender that exist.

  21. #21 Ian
    October 2, 2008

    Zuska –

    You seem to be paradoxically both getting and missing the point simultaneously.

    You seem to understand the situation when you say “Okay, that might be a great marketing technique” but you seem to think there ought to be something more than that, and the plain fact is that there isn’t. There’s a good (from the corporate perspective) reason for that, and it has entirely to do with what will move product.

    These corporations do whatever it takes to make money. If they can be seen to be non-sexist, non-racist and green at the same time, then that’s wonderful, but none of those things are their raison d’être, and all of those things are secondary to making money.

    Their ad agencies ultimately operate only from that perspective. They’re going to do whatever it takes to make rake in those profits (the only “green” which actually is truly important to most corporations). As long as they’re not making dangerous waves, they won’t change.

    That’s the problem. There is evidently a large number of people they can reach with what they’re doing – that’s precisely why it’s a great marketing technique.

    Call them the frat-boy mentality, the geek mentality, the jock mentality or whatever, but the point is that that is the mentality at which they’re aiming with a particular ad, and the reality of it is inescapable in this day and age. They wouldn’t be able to employ this “great marketing technique” if there were not a ready-made market for it, and as long as that market exists, they have no incentive to change.

    In fact, it would be corporate suicide to do so, because if they market ineffectively, they go out of business.

    Change will only come when people in the targeted niche no longer respond to such advertising. Apple isn’t going to change that. Neither is Microsoft. That change will only come as individuals change, and individuals will only change if they’re raised to be different – or at least raised with the ability to realize they ought to be different.

    I’m sure that Microsoft’s ad is more powerful to you. To many others, neither of those perspectives is about people. They’re about Mac vs. PC, and that’s all many others will see. They see no sexism or racism involved as far as they’re concerned.

    Whether that in itself is right or wrong is another issue. But the bottom line is that there really is no difference in the two ads, when you get right down to it. Neither one of them was made to be, in the one case racist or sexist, or in the other case, politically correct.

    Both of them are nothing more than cynical manipulations of the viewer, the sole purpose of which is to rake in the dough – and that’s what the real problem is here.

  22. #22 Zuska
    October 2, 2008

    Change will only come when people in the targeted niche no longer respond to such advertising.

    And how, exactly, is that change to come about, if we don’t engage in activities like pointing out how sexism and racism are deployed in advertising meant to manipulate us?

    In a sense, whether the people who created the Mac and PC ads were intentionally sexist/racist is not important. The Mac ads draw upon an existing cultural stereotype, which itself is sexist and racist; the ad can’t help being otherwise because it depends upon this stereotype for its message.

    Of course the ads are all about making money. That’s not news. But they are also about other things, and they tell us stories about how we see ourselves, what we aspire to be, what we think we are like. I think the nature of those stories is important, even as I deplore the manipulation of advertising in general, and I prefer the story that the PC ad tells to the one that the Mac ads tell. Even if, as many commenters here have pointed out, that story has its flaws as well.

  23. #23 MarkusR
    October 2, 2008

    Maybe it’s because I’m just anti-MS, but how is “I am a [piece of inanimate hardware & crappy code]” in the MS ad empowering? Notice that the ad does not say “user”.

  24. #24 Joseph
    October 3, 2008

    The ads are so old I’m surprised nobody’s familiar with it. Possibly because Novell doesn’t have the billions of dollars to invest in marketing that Apple and especially Microsoft do. Enjoy Mac, PC, and Linux:

    http://www.novell.com/linux/meetlinux/

    It was apparently covered in Wired: http://blog.wired.com/cultofmac/2007/03/novell_launches.html

  25. #25 Laurent
    October 3, 2008

    That’s true.

    In the end, what I really appreciate is the acknowledgment that someone like me is in the audience.

    This is doubly true to me here, but only because a family member is actually playing in the ad… :-))

  26. #26 Joel
    October 3, 2008

    I think Amar makes a good point, glorifying Steve Jobs at the expense of Bill Gates. There is a long standing rivalry between the two and viewed in that light, it makes some sense.

  27. #27 Becca
    October 3, 2008

    Ian- shorter Zuska: “advertising is interesting beyond just how effective it is at moving product”.

    Or maybe:
    “Communications analysis, it’s better than sex!”
    /weird quotes from my life

  28. #28 Zuska
    October 3, 2008

    Joseph, I hadn’t seen the Linux ads – thanks for the link. I read the Wired piece – they seem a bit taken aback by Linux being portrayed by a woman.

  29. #29 msphd
    November 2, 2008

    Interesting post. I had noticed all of these things, but I am a Mac user and intend to stay that way until I can’t put up with the Intel switch causing wayyy more crashes than I ever had when Apple was Apple and more pure.

    Seriously, though, women are definitely still a minority in the science and technology world. I would curious to see the breakdown of actual Mac vs. PC purchasers to know if in most American families (like mine and mrphds) our fathers buy the computers and fix them when they break, while our mothers wring their hands and complain when they can’t print. This is still America today.

    All I can do is fix the printer when I’m home, which is thankfully not very often. Dad doesn’t like it though, because Mom makes fun of him that I know what to do and he doesn’t.

    I think advertising is more likely to reflect the consumer than the other way around. Commercials might get me interested in trying something new, but they rarely change my mind about a product I already know and love.

  30. #30 Gabby
    November 5, 2009

    All advertisement companies use the same strategies to attract their typical consumer market. Companies are never going to change their ways of marketing because they work. In my college writing class we have been studying a book called “Signs of Life in the USA” by Sonia Maasik and Jack Solomon. The book is made up of several essays and blogs on marketing strategies, popular culture, what attracts the average person to a commercial, etc. One of these essays discusses a company who knows the exact times that their specific consumers watch TV and they know what attracts certain women to the product. All advertising strategies direct their ads for a certain gender. For example; beer advertisements are directed towards men even though women drink also, and for clothing companies they direct their towards women by attracting them with perfect models and clothing that gives them a certain classy or polished or punk or preppy look. These companies will never change their ways as long as we as the consumer continue being won over by the marketing strategies. The mac and pc commercials are a very good example for this.

  31. #31 Leigh
    November 6, 2009

    The Mac/PC commercials show how much more Mac’s have to offer, the PC strives to be just like the mac, but it never will. Mac has computer technology down to a science, while PC is still trying to perfect it. Why is it that PC’s are always crashing, freezing, and getting viruses, because they have many flaws that mac has already perfected.

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