Taking It to the Street

When Apple decides to do “man-on-the-street” ads, it doesn’t fool around. “Meredith,” one of three new spots for the iPhone, features a Gen Y-type guy actually standing in a crosswalk.

And this is the one for which my enthusiasm is the most, well, curbed. The guy is a yuppie in training, uttering the words “fiancée” and “wedding Web site” in the same breath. (He explains that he and his girlfriend were waiting in a restaurant for her boss and his fiancée, when they realize they can’t remember the woman’s name. So he got on his iPhone and accessed the aforementioned Web site to find it—Meredith—seconds before the boss and the affianced showed up!)

I don’t want to blame poor Elliott, as the guy is identified on the Apple Web site, where the ads are also easily accessed. He certainly comes off as nice and well meaning, and, indeed, a very helpful boyfriend. But in the scheme of things, the “problem” seems trivial and right out of a sitcom. It makes him look like a character in an updated episode of Bewitched.

The result of Apple’s “share your iPhone story” corner on its Web site, this campaign is supposed to be about utility and function and individual truth. (It even places the monologists against a black backdrop, similar to those in the anti-smoking “Truth” ads that allow the camera to pull back and expose the whole setup for what it is.) It’s a natural evolution in the life of the iPhone, and it’s smart. Still, these latest spots come off as a bit awkward and much more forced than the slick iPhone introductory ads.

Both series draw from basic Apple DNA—these, directed by Errol Morris, use the same interview style that lit up the screen in the celebrated “Switch” campaign from 2002.

Although the intro ads for the iPhone seemed glossy, in reality they featured the simplest of demos—just the iPhone and a finger, basically. They were gorgeously lit and subtly edited but, elementally, the spots offered the honesty of the new device. “This is how you turn it on,” the announcer said in “How-to.”

Then the $200 price cuts came, launching an uproar that resulted in a $100 gift certificate for the people who bought the phone a month or so earlier for $595.

So after the price drop, the spots seek to put a human face on the phone and broaden the perceived notion of who an Apple user is. Stefano, the star of the second spot, plays himself: a guy with muscles, a Brooklyn accent and a tattoo sneaking down his arm. He’s also quite entertaining. And he has a story that busy tech aficionados can easily relate to: “I used to have to carry a little bag” he says, (and the way he says “little bag” is delightful) to transport all the equipment he needed for the day: “an iPod, a camera, a regular phone and a phone for e-mail and texting.” That’s “four things” he says. Now, with the iPhone, it’s “one thing.” He grabs it with his wallet, and he’s “outta da house.” (I’m not making fun of him—he’s a real person who comes off as his own stereotype.) He then walks toward an auto body shop and gets into what looks like a 1970s Buick Riviera.

Sure, having one thing to carry and charge instead of four is helpful—the iPhone is a smaller, lighter, sexier synthesis of those other devices. But once again: Gee, fella, that’s tough! Poor musclehead, having to schlep that iPod all over the place! How did he manage? And what did he do before the advent of all this tiny technology? Hire a Sherpa? Really, in the scheme of things, it’s not back-breaking labor. There’s a disconnect here between the privileged existence that allows people to own and enjoy iPods and cell phones, and things that actually save lives, like stem cells. There’s also a disconnect in the way it’s shot—the monologues in a studio and the walk-off on the street.

My personal fave is “Mankind.” It features a businessman in a blue shirt and purple tie—a real guy who, again, fits his demographic so perfectly he could be an actor.

He talks about visual voice mail—an appealing feature that I didn’t know about—calling it, “One of the greatest advancements in the history of mankind.” He seems smart, and I’m pretty sure he’s kidding. Or maybe he’s not. Either way, it puts the electronic marvel in context: It’s not the polio vaccine, or the Gutenberg press. But it does provide a great function, allowing the user to see who called, how long each spoke, and listen (or not) to the messages in any order. In this case, he tells us that one of his messages is a four-minute ramble from a guy who owes him money. An intuitive type, he knows that if it takes four minutes, it’s probably an elaborate excuse about why the guy can’t pay him. So he decides to “skip it—whatever.”

As with the “Switch” campaign, these spots will certainly get better—the power of them is in the aggregate, and many more are slated to break over the next few months. No doubt an Ellen Fleiss will emerge again and get everyone buzzing on the Internet. Even without her, these ads are so memorable, and true to form, I’m sure a whole army of people are busy creating YouTube parodies.