Barbara Lippert's Critique: Friendly Foes

Let’s see—in these Mac spots, the guy on the left looks like Bill Gates, with a hint of Dilbert and Karl Rove. The guy on the right vaguely resembles Steve Jobs, only 25 years younger, crossed with a hipper Jimmy Fallon.

Which would you rather be?

The device—characterizing two people as the computers, and just letting them talk (“I’m a PC” and “I’m a Mac”) is surprising, clever and memorable. But talk about reinforcing stereotypes! How brazen is it to make one super cool, and the other your doddering uncle who lives with his mother, when, ahem, Macs now have the ability to run that pathetically square, virus-laden software called Windows? Can’t we all just get along?

And while the commercials immediately prove true to the brand (all that beautifully lit wit in white space), at the same time, in the past few years we’ve gotten used to the open and accessible iPod sensibility. In great contrast to that everyone-into-the-pool vibe—even if you can’t dance—at first viewing, these seem kind of mean. With his Vans, hooded sweatshirt and three-day beard, the Mac hipster dude started getting on my nerves. I wanted to say, “Wipe the smirk off your face! Turn down that Death Cab for Cutie! And aren’t you, like, 28? Would it kill you to get a suit?” (Whereas the PC user is, literally, a “suit.”)

The more I watched them though, I realized, while the spots may look as visually simple and stark as cartoon panels, they are as carefully worded as a Bill Clinton statement about what “is” is. On the surface, they’re as simple and clean as any well-designed Mac machine, but they’re also loaded with humanity.

There’s genius in the casting. I’d like to say that PC person is just your usual sadly out-of-it, old-before-his-time, pasty-faced white guy. But he’s John Hodgman, a regular on The Daily Show and the author of The Areas of My Expertise, a made-up almanac filled with hilarious charts and lists and a chapter entitled “What You Did Not Know About Hobos.” The other guy, actor Justin Long, has appeared in, among other things, Dodgeball, Herbie Fully Loaded, and Jeepers Creepers. So here’s an interesting layer that sort of evens out the playing field—in real life, PC guy is cooler!

Indeed, “Virus” is laugh-out-loud funny, because Hodgman is amazingly adept at broad physical humor—he sneezes, he freezes, he crashes. In response, Mr. Mac is not a jerk. He’s almost tender about the caretaking—he wipes his friend’s nose, and doesn’t even back away at the PC warning about how easily transmittable these bugs are. (“This one’s a doozy!” poor poignant PC guy explains before he blows.) That’s because, while there are “114,000 known viruses for PCs,” as the suit tells us, Macs are not affected.

This is an effective ad, and I wondered why Apple hasn’t pounded home just this point in the past. They know what they’re doing. It’s a fine line: One good reason to remain as careful as this spot is that Macs are still a teeny 7 percent of the market. Hackers ignore Macs because they can do much more damage focusing on PCs. Perversely, if Apple were to oversell itself on the subject, that would be an invitation to try to start sabotaging Macs. So “Virus,” which makes its point heavily, but at the same time manages to tread lightly, gets an A.

“WSJ” is another surprising spot: It’s based on the rave that the paper’s respected tech columnist, Walt Mossberg, recently gave to the Mac. Hodgman reads from the article. (Way to go with free product placement for The Journal!) It’s also a master stroke. To paraphrase that old Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers quote (she gave him sex and he gave her class), it sexes up The Journal and gives the Mac something that has previously eluded it—Wall Street cred.

It’s also a smart column for Apple to align itself with—Mossberg knows everything, but presents it in a way that’s easy for non-techies to understand. Mr. Mac tries to seem humble and tells PC not to read it aloud. But PC guy is being generous. He seems to have no ego problems of his own. He, too, got a great review, he says, in the “Awesome Computer Review Weekly Journal.”

It makes a great point about price, which previously kept people buying PCs, but it falls apart a bit with the (albeit well-delivered) last joke. Because if you really think about it, most PC makers could scan the Mossberg archives and come up with an equally appealing review.

Each spot has something funny and affecting. In “I life,” it’s painful to watch PC groove to his iPod. “Just a little something to hold my Slow Jams,” he says, while Mac boy then launches into a quick explanation of I Life. Mr. PC then says he has plenty of “cool apps” (and uses the funniest pronunciation of “bundled” I’ve ever heard); it turns out he’s talking about a clock and calculator.

I also liked “Network,” which starts out with the two dudes holding hands—very beautiful, in a Kumbaya sort of way. The love fest is broken, however, when Mac introduces his new peripheral friend—a Japanese woman embodying a new digital camera. (It could have been an appalling stereotype, but she’s modern and smart and doesn’t giggle until the very end.)

There’s probably a limited run for the campaign—Sir Mac can’t go on beating up poor PC forever. But he sure makes his point for now. Interestingly, former genius pirate Steve Jobs is now forced into the role of a diplomat: There’s the whole Intel chip thing, for starters, and he had to make peace with the Beatles, and work out a deal with Disney. Who knows what’s to come? He might even soon be photographed in a suit.