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Hidden Dimensions -- A Technical Analysis of Apple's New TV Ads

by John Martellaro
May 15th, 2006

"Had him, and we lost him."

-- Apple "Restarting" TV commercial

There is a lot going on in the new Apple TV ads that hasn't been discussed. No one has really analyzed them from a no-nonsense marketing standpoint, so I think it's time to do that.

To get some perspective, let's look first at what others have said. Then we'll move on to the technical elements of these new Apple ads.

Some have said that the ads are preaching to the converted. This makes no sense to me since the ads are placed on TV during prime time and the talk shows where a great cross section of Americans are viewing. If Apple wanted to preach to the converted, they'd run their ads on the MacAddict CD each month. Let's be realistic about Apple's expertise. If Apple is spending millions on these ads and targeting the entire cross section of the population, why would they preach to the converted? Would that be a good return on investment?

Perhaps the hidden implication here is that only Apple customers will resonate with the message. To prove this, one author points out that PCs have 96% of the market. Wait. I'll diagram it.

  • PC customers have made up their minds in the past.
  • Apple advertises its advantages to PC customers.
  • Therefore only Apple's customers are convinced.

I question the initial assumption. Is it really true that no PC customers can be persuaded? Is it really true that laying out the facts for them in a humorous and appealing way is fruitless? Do sales statistics from the past hold for all time? If they did, Wang would still own the office automation market, Cadillac would still own the luxury vehicle market, and SGI [1] would still be the darling of Hollywood movie editors.

Some have said that Apple alienates or makes fun of a potential new customer by telling him he's not cool.

In fact, Apple says nothing about the PC user. But perhaps it's because a human is used as a metaphor for a PC that the discussion about the PC appears to refer to the users themselves [2]. Given Apple's blunt statement that these men are PCs, not users, that's a mistake one shouldn't make.

Moreover, if the PC user so identifies with his PC and considers assertions about the weaknesses of PCs as a personal attack, then Apple is certainly better off without this particular breed of customer. We know that not all home users feel that way -- they just fell into PCs and many are now looking for a better way.

Enough of that. Let's move on.

There are three elements that stand out to me in these commercials. There's the symbolism, the real targets, and the advertisement's view of objective truth.

1. Symbolism.

It is said that TV viewers make up their minds whether to watch a commercial in the first few seconds. Because of this constraint, Apple chose to start each one sharply with two intriguing looking gentlemen making a bold statement that portends a simple story of conflict. There will absolutely be no time to get into the technical details of a computer and its OS. I wrote about that in the kickoff column for Hidden Dimensions.

To get the ball rolling quickly, there is effective use of symbolism. First, there is the obvious symbolism of the clothing. But remember that the clothing is a symbol for the computer and its typical environment, not for the individual users.

Justin Long (the Mac), by his jeans and T-shirt, represents a machine that promotes freedom and freedom of expression. He also represents a computer designed for people full of enthusiasm and creativity. The suggestion is that using such a computer leads to the holy grail of computer life: self-respect, self-confidence, and self-realization.

John Hodgman (the PC), by his clothing, represents a machine associated with corporate repression and routine. The suit coat reminds us not of individuals who wear them but of the corporation that tells us what computer we're allowed to have on our desk and says "Don't think for yourself and don't use your tools with passion. Just get to work!"

However there is additional, subtle symbolism in these ads that I'll describe in a minute.

2. Targeting.

These new ads don't speak to IT Managers. Claiming that the ads would upset the enterprise customers is really a stretch. Enterprise managers and staff who watch these ads know perfectly well why they chose PCs and Windows in the office. As I said last week, Microsoft business products "check the boxes."

To suggest that they would be insulted is disingenuous because it suggests that they didn't make good decisions for their organization and they don't understand the benefits of the Mac for home users. We must give them some credit. Even a seasoned IT manager, up to his ears in his daily IT issues, will admit that the Apple message is crystal clear to Joe User sitting at home.

And when Apple does want to address the enterprise, they do it in the appropriate channel in the appropriate way. Recall, during 2004, Apple ran many ads for the Xserve on the inside front cover of InfoWorld and other business publications.

3. Objective Truth.

In my science education, I learned very early that there is only one right answer for the problems at the end of the chapter in the text books. One either learned the mathematics and physics techniques to get that one right answer or one's future in science was severely in question.

It boils down to objective truth. Science and engineering are derived from Nature, and Nature is unforgiving. One misunderstanding about orbital dynamics and propulsion or one incomplete analysis of the impact of foam on a Space Shuttle's wing can lead to fiery death on re-entry. People die every day because they don't understand the laws of physics, in varying weather conditions, related to braking [3], coefficients of friction, momentum, and energy of their cars.

But education in America has seen some changes. The embarrassment of not paying attention, working hard, and building math skills is often too traumatic. As a result, we have a generation with some people who have skated when it comes to learning, reasoning, analyzing the facts, and correcting their mistakes. Many don't really understand the technical details of their computers, don't realize the dangers that confront Windows, and when questioned, because of their previous pampering, will tell you that their choice is just as good as anyone else's.

These Apple ads speak to objective truth. The Internet is a very dangerous place and getting worse every day. They say: take responsibility. Evaluate. Don't let your security and privacy, joy and creativity die a fiery death.

Looking at each ad, I see words that were carefully chosen and some additional symbolism.

Viruses. Note that Apple didn't say that Macs have zero viruses. They simply said that Macs aren't subject to 114,000+ viruses. Many customers don't understand VM rootkits, SSL bypasses, and so on. No need to go there. But customers do get colds and suffer. [4] If the virus is bad enough, you crash. That's the obvious part.

But did you notice the symbolism? The PC is not only suffering, it's the Mac that pulls out a hankie and assists the PC. The PC can't even help itself.

Better. Here's some objective reality. We've all known for years that Apple products are better designed for the consumer. Easier to use. More intuitive. More consistent. Many have encouraged Apple to just say that. That's what advertisements should do. State the case. In plain English. So they did. Many are called. Some will listen.

And by the way, better means better.

WSJ. Notice how the PC grabs the newspaper from the Mac? As I explained above, this doesn't suggest that PC users are rude, because, in fact, Hodgman is a symbol for a PC not a human user. Rather, one is immediately led to suspect that the PC is similarly not likely to be respectful of its (unseen) user. Meanwhile, Justin nods humbly and respectfully. "It's just one man's opinion." This goes to the character of the two computers. There is strong symbolism here about what you can expect from your personal experience with a Mac.

And there's another objective truth thrown in. The PC concludes with, "...And so we're just the same." A serious blast, if there ever was one, at PC publications who, for business reasons, pretend that PCs are just as good and just as secure as Macs in the consumer space.

Restarting. Did you catch the restraint? Apple never says that Macs never have to be restarted. Hodgman locks up before they get to that. Rather, it gently implies that Macs don't have to be restarted quite as often, and so they don't really "know how it is" because Justin is the one who carries on. Some people will adamantly point out that Macs occasionally must be restarted -- as if to prove that Apple is misleading the audience. Quite the contrary, the ad suggests to the PC audience what the community already knows to be true in general. It's okay to do that.

iLife. If Microsoft were to bundle cool personal, digital lifestyle apps with Windows -- like the kind that Apple bundles, they'd have to do it only on the home edition. (To satisfy those no-nonsense IT managers who don't want apps like that in the work place.) But Microsoft typically cripples the home edition to keep OEM costs down and cope with less capable home hardware. That puts Microsoft in a business bind. Plus, Microsoft has never felt that they needed cool personal apps to sell the hardware. Dell and HP get to do that job. So why bother? Apple reminds us that for all kinds of crazy business considerations, a PC is not for the home user.

Network. Have you wondered why the camera is symbolized by a woman? Think about it for a second. After all we've discussed here, it'll come to you in a second. Hint: Who wires up the TV/stereo system in your home? And who's the one who never understands how to use it?

Even though Apple works hard to bill itself as an irreverent company that caters to misfits and dreamers, internally, Apple is a very hard-nosed, tightly run company. These ads were expensive, and this analysis suggests that there was a lot of thought put into them to make sure they provide a return on investment. So remember, even though a writer here and a reader there will have an axe to grind about these commercials, it's only by studying Apple's culture, objectives, political considerations and Apple's analysis of the competition that we can really evaluate these commercials.

[1] SGI just filed for bankruptcy.

[2] Some will choose to see it that way for their own ends.

[3] Twenty years of observation has shown that many drivers in
Colorado believe that because they have all wheel drive, they
can stop better. Really.

[4] I note that AOL seems to have done this first on TV, and they also did it
without mentioning Windows.

John Martellaro is a senior scientist and author. A former U.S. Air Force officer,he has worked for NASA, White Sands Missile Range, Lockheed Martin Astronautics, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Apple Computer. During his five years at Apple, he worked as a Senior Marketing Manager for science and technology, Federal Account Executive, and High Performance Computing Manager. His interests include alpine skiing, SciFi, astronomy, and Perl. John lives in Denver, Colorado.

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