Apple launched a new series of “Genius” ads last week. The tech press, who has trouble relating to regular people, thinks they are terrible. Here is a typical piece of critcism:
But the Mac owner is clearly a simpleton who puts computer help ahead of his own laboring wife and apparently can’t operate a phone. And why is he taking a random Apple employee along to the hospital?
These are fair points, if you are questioning the reality of universe in which the ads take place. Guess what, Trekkie? That is not how people watch ads.
People, in general, watch TV to relax. Sure, some people try figure out the identity of the killer before the last commercial break, but most people are happy to let the detectives do it. You already know this, but I’m spelling it out to emphasize that pointing out that real Geniuses don’t sleep in their uniforms is, well, pointless.
Complaints that the ads make Mac users look stupid are just, well, weird. First of all, have you ever seen an ad for anything else? The vast majority of ads that take place in a household setting involve a husband who does something stupid and a clever wife who must come to the rescue. The vast majority. Yet I never hear anyone complaining about how General Mills is insulting its customers.
Nobody watches a beer commercial and thinks, hey, that could be me on that beach with those bikini girls! If you think that’s how it works, you have a seriously low opinion of people. The fact is, people don’t project themselves into ads. That’s not how it works. People watch these 30 second short films and have an emotional reaction, which the advertiser hopes is associated with their product.
Nobody thinks the beer will get them a bikini girl, but when they see the beer, it feels nice, like a watching a bikini volleyball game does.
Here is what “you people” are missing:
- These ads are not for Mac, they are for the Genius Bar.
- These ads, like every other ad, are about emotion.
On the first item, this is a good move, because the Genius Bar is something almost completely unique to Apple. I’d even wager there are people out there who have set foot in an Apple Store and still aren’t completely clear on exactly what the Genius Bar is all about. Their only point of reference is Best Buy’s Geek Squad, whose primary focus is technical issues, repairs, upgrades, etc. They are auto mechanics. Geniuses, on the other hand, also help you use your Mac to do things like edit a home movie. The purpose of these ads is to communicate that idea.
On the second item, the way an ad communicates is with emotion. I thought that with Mad Men on the air, we were all supposed to understand that. The reason the ads feature over-the-top situations with people acting in extreme ways is to heighten that emotion. If you just played a video of someone going to an actual Genius Bar with an actual problem, it would be an insanely boring 30 seconds.
Here is what happens in the Genius ads. Try watching with the sound off.
Mayday. It’s very serious. Genius is needed. Passenger is having a problem. Genius keeps his cool, tells Passenger to calm down. Genius and Passenger become a team. It is intense. Passenger: Oh no, we’re not going to make it! Genius: We are going to make it. Problem solved! Yeah! What’s this? New problem. Let’s go!
Basically. Green Shirt taps Genius on the shoulder. Friendly hello! Green Shirt is proud of what’s in his bag. Genius is concerned. Green Shirt is confident. Genius asks a question. Green Shirt starts to look concerned. Shakes his head, no. Gesture at a man leaning in a door way. Genius has pained expression. Sorry. Everybody is sorry.
Labor Day. Urgent knock on the door! Lights on! Out of bed! Man is excited! Genius was woken up but he is not angry. Genius is paying attention. Man is excited! Genius is calm, offers a plan. Man is excited! Genius closes the door, let’s go together.
The situations are silly in order to heighten the drama of the situation, but in every case, the Genius is helping someone, and keeping calm while doing so. That’s the story that these ads are communicating. The Genius will help you.
People are pointing to the “Basically” ad as an example of condescension, but honestly this is about the nicest way you can react if a friend you know has made a mistake and you want to let them down gently. You don’t tell them they made a mistake; you give them the benefit of the doubt (so the computer you got has iPhoto, right?); and then when they realize it you try to be sympathetic. You can argue that Apple shouldn’t have tried to tell this story, but I don’t think you can argue that there’s a “nicer” version of it.
I’m almost angry about how “certain” everyone is that these ads are not good. This is coming from the same tiny faction of people who are “certain” Twitter needs to support the 3rd party clients that nobody but themselves is using, or else!
For all the criticism I’ve read, I haven’t seen any suggestions about how Apple should do it differently. There is some rosy retrospection regarding the PC vs Mac ad campaign (it was never universally liked), but that’s about it.