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Apple's Switcheroo

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Last week, the report of the Dell dude getting busted for allegedly buying pot resulted in such widespread glee (and "Dude, you're getting a cell!" newspaper headlines) that you'd think the guy had morphed into Martha Stewart or something. "Steven" hasn't popped up in Dell commercials for a while, but he left an indelible impression: a surfer/slacker type who was all icky sweetness and light, created presumably to appeal to the aging moms—and maybe even the Martha Stewarts—of the world.

The light-switch-phony sensibility of the Dell dude could not have been more at odds with Apple's much more natural, and therefore slightly hangdog, "Switchers" campaign. An epic story of struggle against PCs, the work was peopled with actual, edgy Mac owners unburdening themselves in front of the camera.

Given all that, who'd ever think that for its very next ad, Apple—a bastion of difference and futuro-design cool—and its agency, TBWA\Chiat\Day, would ever go the retro-traditional route of paying celebrity endorsers to hold the product on their laps and smile? Even more astonishing, to pair 7-foot, 5-inch Yao Ming and 32-inch Verne Troyer in a spot for its new big and small G4 Powerbooks seems so potentially freakish, exploitative or just painfully obvious that on its face, the idea is not only decidedly non-Apple-like but kind of cringe-making.

Plus, oversized Yao, who's being marketed as the next Michael Jordan (Yao ascending, Jordan descending), is performing well but has yet to become a champion on the court. In advertising, he is here already, in a Visa spot ("Yo-Yao-yo-gi'') and a Gatorade deal, and so he's rapidly heading to overexposed. We know that after appearing in countless ads and promotions, Troyer is overexposed. Yet somehow the spot still comes off as fresh and sweet and respectful.

The charm—and inherent Apple-osity—of "Big & Small" is in everything it's not. The secret is in the undoing/underplaying of what's expected. Thankfully, there are no sock-o physical jokes, no obvious Mutt and Jeff schtick. (Unlike Jordan's appearance with Mini-me in a ghastly 1-800-Call ATT spot in 2001, or even Jordan's joking with Spike Lee as Mars Blackmon.) Our humanity and technology are uniters, not dividers, as Bush might say.

If anything, the 5XL guy and the snuggly-sized one's physical differences are minimized. With an arm like Stretch Armstrong's, Yao is shown simply reaching up from sitting position to get his Powerbook out of the overhead rack. That's funny, and that's it—he's not seen conking his head on the ceiling or lifting Mini-me to his tray table or doing any Kramer-like pratfalls. In turn, Troyer pulls out his G4 from beneath the seat in front of him, but the camera, and the editing, demur from covering his every move, so it's not at all awkward.

The biggest surprise—and what makes the spot even more graceful—is the quietness. The two are in their own cocoon, sitting in some fantasy first-class seats on a hushed and nearly empty plane. (Maybe the kid in coach from an Apple spot some years back who unleashed an ear-piercing bit of "Who Let the Dogs Out" made everyone else flee.) Neither Yao nor Troyer speaks a word. Instead, they eye each other's laptops with amusement. They end up breaking each other up, and the smiles seem genuine.

About the hardware ogling (and if I don't go there, who will?), the reversal of expectations here is that Ming has the small one (12 inches) and Verne has the big one (17 inches). It's up to viewers whether to see state-of-the-art technology or a penis joke; sometimes a Powerbook is just a Powerbook. (OK, so while whispering in Britney Spears' ear, Mini-me did liken his anatomy to a "kickstand" in Goldmember. Meanwhile, there was another line in The Spy Who Shagged Me in which Mini-me is described as "evil, wants to take over the world and fits easily into overhead storage," so let's get back to the plane.)

Troyer uses his delightfully oversized but one-inch-thin notebook (at more than half his height, it extends from his chest to his ankles) to watch a ninja movie, which appears onscreen immediately. Yao, who can palm the cute little aluminum thing in one hand, settles in with a basketball training video on his screen, which looks as good as TV. The spot is capped with a jaunty voiceover from Apple's longtime dude-equivalent, Jeff Goldblum.

Apple has always sold ease of use—and though celeb filled, this spot embodies ease of use, in both form and content. It tells a complete story and is powerful but still remarkably light and airy. Just like the big and small thing it sells.