Apple’s testimonials and the burden of truth

I just bought an iMac. It’s one of the jazzy new models with the flat screen that pivots on its chrome stem in a way that seems weirdly human, like the Pixar lamp that apparently was its inspiration. It’s a no-frills model, but it looks very cool.
And so do the “Switchers” commercials, Apple’s latest advertising success. Deciding that it needed to attack the PC world more aggressively, Apple asked people who had ditched their PCs for Macs to post their stories on its Web site. Hundreds of responses later, TBWA\Chiat\Day got director Errol Morris to fire up his “Interrotron” and film a handful of those “switchers.”

Sales are up, but that’s not all. Last week, Microsoft attempted an ill-conceived reply to “Switchers,” posting on its own Web site what appeared to be a testimonial from a freelance writer who had switched the other way, from a Mac to a PC (“Yes, it’s true. I like the Microsoft Windows XP operating system enough to change my whole computing world around”). But the author’s photo turned out to be a stock image—the real author was a woman at Microsoft’s PR firm, and Microsoft quickly pulled the page. All of which had Mac users howling with delight and peppering message boards with the usual anti-Microsoft venom.
Microsoft deserves it. But can Apple take the high ground? Is “Switchers” really that much more honest?
In the spots, the converts—a lawyer, a small-business owner, an IT guy, a DJ, etc.—talk about how work is a much happier place or, failing that, how they rush home from PC-infested offices to spend hour after crash-free hour of quality time with their iMacs. The girl who saves Christmas is annoying, but otherwise the campaign is compelling. I’ve used Macs at work for years, but these ads made me a switcher in spirit.
But as U.S. News & World Report had revealed, many of Apple’s switchers have more background in tech than they let on in the commercials. All of them had to sign nondisclosure agreements—which isn’t unusual, but doesn’t inspire confidence that they have nothing to hide. And one of them—Liza Richardson—used to work for Apple as a music consultant.

Not that there’s anything wrong with any of this. Testimonials are usually paid for, and they don’t have to be objective to be believable (consider Fallon’s post-9/11 United Airlines commercials, also directed by Morris). But it’s a relevant question for Apple, in part because the campaign holds up the switchers as representing the average consumer. And the company has built its brand around the concept of truth, from “1984” to “Think different.” It has courted the artists and writers who form the core of its customer base by making the choice of Mac over PC seem like a moral one. Individualism over the faceless corporation. Truth over lies.
For a company with that kind of positioning, ads in the prickly form of testimonials are tough to pull off. Apple wants “Switchers” to be more believable than your average testimonials. But maybe, like my new iMac, they mostly just look cool.

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