Dell Does Not Compute

Last week, just as computer giant Dell announced that its $4.5 billion advertising account would go to WPP, Mother, the brand’s always-clever New York agency, released a spot showing old computers being smashed to bits, set to a musical version of “Que Sera, Sera” so mournful that it could almost be “The Party’s Over.” Coincidence?

I’m joking, of course, and as with many agency/client relationships these days, Mother is on retainer or contract (no one will say which) and will keep some of the consumer biz, at least for a while.

The spot, called “Out With the Old,” introducing the XPS One, is a cold, arty surprise. Still, it’s definitely in keeping with the rest of Mother’s work, which in the last year has promoted Dell’s colorful, fashion-y side.

That Dell can produce good-looking computers is news, sure. For years, the company represented stiff, Republican, male, build-your-own-PC culture (as opposed to Apple’s ultra-design-conscious, woo-woo liberal free-thinkers). But 10 years after the advent of the iMac, the idea of great design in this category ceases to be surprising or shocking (never mind breakthrough), and seems more like the way to stay in business. (Everyone knows that John Hodgman, the guy who personifies the ever sad and suffering, bland PC in the hilarious Apple spots, is a cartoon, and that the arrogant Mac guy is not the only one in the universe with style.)

So to base yet another Dell campaign on the idea of “beauty” alone strikes me as way too obvious, and even annoying.

Given the limitations of the idea, however, the spot is executed brilliantly; directed by an Icelandic duo, the Snorri Brothers, it’s the opposite of sleep inducing. In fact, it seems to be made for TiVo and repeat viewings. There’s a little something for everyone, in terms of blowing stuff up, but at the same time is filmic and performance arty. It’s all done in a refrigerator-white (Apple’s signature color!) studio, where a museum collection of clunky old monitors, big hard drives and ancient motherboards sits on pedestals. Everything is black, white and gray. There’s not a human in sight, and no natural sound. Meanwhile, the act of incinerating the machinery, with bits and pieces flying around in slow-mo like confetti, seems apocalyptic.

The music, too, is chill inducing: A weirdly paced cover of “Que Sera, Sera,” by artist Jennifer Terran, takes the sunny right out of the famous Doris Day hit from the 1950s. That’s interesting, because I always found the lyrics (“When I was just a little girl, I asked my mother, what will I be? Will I be pretty, will I be rich…”) kind of nauseating—and limiting, with “pretty” and/or “rich” the only possibilities for girls.

At the same time, its use here is not meant to blow the lid off the lyrics, exactly. The point is to promote Dell’s new machine as pretty and rich, so it illustrates the action, rather than juxtaposing it. Still, the music is haunting, and I love the way she pronounces the “whatevuh” in the very existential lyric, “Whatever will be will be.”

One of the wrecking balls, a silver modern-looking piece, could double as an oversized Christmas ornament. Meanwhile, the XPS One hovers on a high pedestal, ike the mother ship in the midst of all this destruction.

In the end, it stands alone, as the tagline “Now available in beautiful” appears. Sure, this new model of Dell is sleek and nicely designed, a sculptural object, with no weird hard drive in sight. But these days, it’s hardly a revolutionary item, suggesting that 1984 won’t be like 1984 or anything. It’s a visually dazzling execution of an elementary point.

Sorry to say I like the print ad even less. (There are also outdoor and bus ads.) It features Karolina Kurkova, supermodel and one of the Victoria’s Secret wing wearers, bringing some dazzle to the new machine. (To clear up the confusion, she’s not Maria Sharapova, the tennis player, or Petra Nemcova, the model who is now making a career of surviving the tsunami.)

It’s nicely designed and framed, all on the horizontal, and features the same tagline as the TV spot. Kurkova, clothed in a (very) little black dress and fabulous black patent leather shoe-boots with a red heel, extends her six-foot-long arms to the monitor (which reveals a picture within a picture), pulling it between her folded knees. (That’s why she gets the big bucks: She can maintain a Zen-ed out, come-hither look while sitting in that weirdly strained position.) She looks ready for something—perhaps a sandwich?

Am I not getting something? Or is this merely a contemporary-looking robo-version of the 1950s woman in caribou slippers draped over the hood of a car? I can’t see how it will appeal to women. And in defense of substance, didn’t mother always say, “Beauty is as beauty does”?

Or is it still just supposed to appeal to Republican men?