Magical Mystery Tour

Ogilvy’s new Linux campaign is a beautifully realized allegory for the open-source system

Apparently hatched in a laboratory, the boy has platinum hair—like Michael Jackson’s son or a mini-Eminem. And talk about the power version of home schooling. In his pure, Arctic-white environment (germ-free, bug-free, virus-free), he sits on an iconic white Tulip Chair as a roster of giants as diverse as Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., Muhammad Ali and, yes, Penny Marshall (of Laverne & Shirley “Schlemiel, schlemazel …” fame ) come in to teach him.

A mustachioed Ali tells him to, “Speak your mind, don’t back down”; his few seconds on screen are surprisingly powerful and poignant. Marshall advises him that “it’s all about timing.” That’s one trippy childhood, but everything about this allegorical IBM spot for Linux is unexpected and a bit mystical and metaphysical. As illustrated in the 60-second fable, the fair-haired boy stands for Linux itself, the open-source operating system created in 1991 by 21-year-old Linus Torvalds in his dorm room at the University of Helsinki and then developed by a community of hackers as a rebellion against Bill Gates and Microsoft.

A second wave in the campaign broke last week, and it, too, is dense and dreamlike, presenting a beautiful mix of textures and scales as the boy—his open face meant to convey the wisdom of the ages—travels around the world, learning and sharing with different cultures and people. The spots almost get hypnotic, as if there’s something subliminal going on and we’re receiving cult messages.

The cult thing is not too far off-base. For starters, let’s get all the computing, and competing, ironies out on the table: IBM, once the most buttoned-up, hierarchical, corporate company in America, the very same “Big Brother” that the runner in Apple’s “1984” commercial tried to destroy, has become the biggest proponent of Linux, the open-source movement that grew as an underground, anti-business community. Its credo is that any of its members could individually write code and improve the software. Now, 20 years after Apple declared war on Big Blue, IBM, with this massive TV and Internet campaign aimed at CEOs, has officially thrown its own sledgehammer at Microsoft’s closed and proprietary systems.

In the new 30-second spots, the boy gets out of the lab and into the planet. Our announcer updates the business-plan-as-fable this way: “A story is told about an orphan. A boy who belonged to no one. But the boy was not alone. He had friends. He grew fast. … Because the boy who belonged to no one had been adopted. By the world.” Indeed, the open boy appears to have carried his trademark chair to India, China, Peru, Venice, London and Wall Street in footage that mixes Joe Pytka’s unrivaled cinematography with raw video elements. By planting the boy in India and China, for example, the spots smartly emphasize where Linux is growing.

Some of the spots in the second phase feature title cards up front with the names of the esteemed personages subsequently quoted. It’s somewhat confusing that the living legends (including Gloria Steinem, Kurt Vonnegut, John Wooden and Sylvia Nasar, author of A Beautiful Mind) get the same treatment as the dead ones ( Victor Hugo and Frederick Douglass). All the quotes relate to the qualities of the original hacker communities: team building, freedom, partnership, bravery. They’re all pretty moving, although one more than slightly overreaches by attempting to explain chaos theory in seven seconds (“Out of chaos, patterns emerge. One little thing can solve incredibly complex problems”).

The Victor Hugo quote, from the 19th century, is particularly fitting: “Nothing in the world is so powerful as an idea whose time has come.” But Charles Darwin’s anthem of the survival of the fittest is the most direct and definitive: “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”

Microsoft still has a lock on more than 90 percent of the world’s computing systems. With IBM promoting Linux, it obviously is no longer a movement of hackers doing it for principle, not money. But these arty, edgy and sometimes moving commercials do preserve the idea of something important being born and growing.