Why "I'm A PC" Works

5 December, 2006

With rumors flying around about the replacement of Justin Long, the actor playing The Mac in Apple's current I'm A Mac ad campaign, there's been some debate as to the campaign's effectiveness.Actually, "debate" is probably too mild a descriptor.

'Vitriolic spleen venting' might do a bit better.

From Slate to the TWiTs, commentators on all sides seem convinced that the campaign is, at best, ineffective, and at worst, insulting and alienating to exactly those viewers who it is most specifically trying to sell: PC users.

The logic goes like this: humorist and Daily Show contributor
John Hodgman, who plays The PC, is so damn lovable that, by contrast, The Mac comes off looking like a smug know-it-all. TWiT's John C. Dvorak even went so far as to attribute this misstep to the innate arrogance of Apple employees who, themselves resembling Long, missed the strength of Hodgman's appeal to ordinary (read: non-Mac using) computer shoppers.

I think this gets it exactly backwards. Hodgman's folksy charisma lies right at the heart of the ads' effectiveness. The campaign is aimed squarely at PC users -- it's the more informal inheritor of the somewhat stuffy Switch campaign that proceeded it -- and Hodgman's portrayal flatters them. His PC is neither evil imperial storm-trooper nor gray corporate drone, as in the iconic image from Apple's legendary 1984 spot. Instead, he's a normal, if somewhat hapless, well-meaning guy beset on all sides by misfortune. His problems don't seem the result of some failing on his part -- or some flavor of just dessert -- but instead are imposed on him from outside.

This is exactly how 'normal' people often see themselves, especially those in corporate or especially bureaucratic jobs. And the ad offers them hope: you can do something about your unlucky lot, replace your PC with a Mac and your haplessness can become Long's easy competence.

For the Hodgmans of the world the 'cool guy' himself is always kind of repellent. His nonchalance and comfort in the world are, of course, objects of envy. But he doesn't deserve or appreciate them. That's why the twinge of hate towards The Mac guy that these commercials inspire is their final touch of genius. That feeling gives the PC users this spot is aimed at room to retain their superior image of themselves while simultaneously framing a story in which a switch is an improvement.

It's an amazing tightrope act of signification the ad team's pulled off here and so it's not surprising that many commentators missed it. It's also not surprising that Apple is selling Macs like hotcakes.

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