Those New Mac Ads – Why We REALLY Hate Them
by Dan Haggard
Recently Apple released a set of new ads to advertise their Mac personal computers. The response from the internet has been that of vituperative hatred. This post made it on to the front page of Hacker News and I think most accurately sums up the accepted reasons for this response. The strange thing however, when you look at them in a bit more depth, is that it becomes hard to deny that all of the criticisms in that post applies to the old Get a Mac campaign that was beloved by all. So one has to wonder – what’s going on here? Why do people suddenly want to apply all these criticisms when they likely never thought to before? What has really turned them off Apple’s marketing all of a sudden?
So first of all I’m going to have to make the case that the new ads aren’t all that different from the old ads. Well – lets start by working through Sean Oliver’s criticisms.
1) They don’t show the product.
Neither did the Get a Mac campaign. Incidentally – you can see a Mac in the Mayday commercial.
2) They don’t explain the product.
Oliver acknowledges that the Get a Mac campaign didn’t show the product either – but argues that they focused on a discrete feature set and explained how they work. Oliver writes:
In the ad above, the Genius asks the shopper, “It came loaded with all the great apps like iMovie, iPhoto, Garageband… Not ringing a bell?” The consumer at whom this ad is targeted doesn’t know what these apps are. As a result, he doesn’t know why he should care that he doesn’t have them. And if the ad doesn’t tell him that, he’s just going to hear marketing noise and tune out.
This may well be a valid criticism. But then – it should apply equally to this ad from the Get Mac Campaign. Which is essentially the SAME ad.
In fact these three new ads all focus on the cool apps. The first introduces them generally. The second explains some of the things you can do with them. This is actually more information about what these apps are than was provided by the Get a Mac campaign.
3) They make the target audience feel stupid
What you mean – everyone who owned a PC at the time of the Get a Mac campaign didn’t feel completely patronised? Not only were those who had bought a PC stupid in those ads, they were also completely ineffectual dorks. Why wasn’t this a problem?
4) They make the Geniuses look like an unsupportive know-it-all
While he is a bit of a know at all – it’s not correct to say he’s not supportive. Actually – the character is very supportive. He helps the dude get his wife to the hospital. And he helps the plane passenger create a movie for his wife. In fact – he never chastises the customer – ever. He doesn’t imply their questions are stupid as Oliver claims. He totally absorbs himself in their problems at the expense of his own comfort. And even if you still do insist on detecting a horrible patronising know-it-all in this character – have another look at the Get a Mac ad I just linked to above. Listen to the completely transparent put-down at the end of the ad. This is a character that repeatedly pretends to be encouraging and supportive to the PC guy but then always ends up bitch slapping him.
Yet we all liked him more. Why?
5) There’s no clear call to action
Again – this goes as well for the Get a Mac ads. It’s not like any of them ended with ‘Go out and buy your mac today!’
So none of these reasons really seem to explain the hatred people have for these advertisements. In fact – they are in fact post-hoc rationalisations of what is a far more primal and instinctive reaction.
The Problem of the Beta Male
The marketing guys at Apple probably thought they were doing no wrong when they created this campaign. After all – the genius guy is probably most accurately described as a less threatening, less patronising (though still somewhat patronising) version of the Mac guy in the Get a Mac campaign. Since the most obvious criticism of the latter campaign was that the Mac guy came off as a bit of a prick, the marketers probably thought they were keeping the best of old campaign while removing its chief flaw.
So what’s going on then?
The reason why we liked the old ads and not the new ads has to do with how we psychologically react tot he genius character. Even though he is very similar to the Mac character from the old campaign – his evolution has nevertheless turned him into one of the most despised character archetypes: the beta male who doesn’t even know he is beta.
Let’s start with the fact that he is a beta male.
He’s a dork. And he’s a dork because of his choices. He’s reasonably good looking – but short and of slim build. While a disadvantage to the would be alpha – it’s not a fundamental problem. Plenty of small dudes do well with the ladies. His problem is that he’s wearing a corporate branded t-shirt. The t-shirt in itself lacks style. But by dressing in a corporate branded t-shirt signals that he has no identity beyond being a corporate schmoe. Of course, corporate executives love this idea that people have no identity beyond their little house of group think. But to most people – it just signals that you have no individuality, no strong sense of self. And that’s just how we perceive beta males.
He’s servile. He drops everything to help others. This is what low status males do. Thinking they will win the heart of their beloved – they end up either appearing creepy or just weak. It’s just not how you signal value. This is one of those sad truths about human sociality and courtship that many of us don’t want to admit. But it’s well understood enough to be a cliché – girls don’t get with nice guys.
He’s indirect. When he notices that people are doing stupid stuff – like buying bad computers, or focusing on tech when they should be getting their pregnant wife to the hospital. He doesn’t ever come out and tell them that they are being stupid. Alpha males generally have no problem with directness. That’s why alpha males are often also seen as being arseholes.
But at the same time – he doesn’t seem to know he’s beta. Why?
He thinks he knows better. In all three ads he demonstrates that he knows better than the people he is interacting with. In the first one he knows better because he understands what a Mac computer really is. In the second ad he knows better because he thinks (obviously correctly) that the customer should be focusing on his wife rather than the tech. And in the third he knows better because he gives the customer various creative tips as opposed to just helping him use the software.
We don’t like this because we interpret it as a beta male trying to act outside the hierarchical structures with which we are ordinarily comfortable. Once we have someone pegged as beta – that’s how we want them to remain.
He is too confident. In the middle of a crowded plane he stands up and answers the call for a helpful tech dude. He’s not shy. But we instinctively think he should be. After all, he’s dressed like a dork and keeps acting in a servile way. Such confidence would ordinarily be the mark of an alpha personality. But in this case we just cringe. When an alpha male behaves confidently and draws attention to himself – it’s called being charismatic. When a beta male does it – it’s called making a fool out of yourself.
We don’t like such characters. It signals that they haven’t figured out what is a socially acceptable form of extroverted behaviour. If you’re going to be loud and proud – you need to be able to play guitar really well, you know – be a rockstar,or something like that. Being good at tech support is not one of those things.
Ignorant Betas in Narrative
Being a beta male is not the worst thing you can be. Beta males are in fact well liked. They are helpful, kind – and they don’t try and shove their opinions down your throat. But no one likes a beta male that doesn’t know he’s beta. In the context of seeing such characters in a narrative – we only respond well to them if they are positioned clearly as a bad guy. The classic example is that of Grima Wormtongue from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
He has all the features of the classic beta male – but has usurped power from the King of Rohan by magical means. He whispers in the King’s ears with his own opinions of what should be done, when instead he should be under the King’s command. That is to say – he doesn’t know he’s beta.
From the point of view of a good story this is all fine – because he’s a bad guy. We don’t mind watching such characters if they are positioned in this way. The Genius character in Apple’s ads is not. He’s positioned as the good guy. This causes in us a great deal of cognitive dissonance. We don’t want to publicly show ourselves as hating on the good guy. So instead we turn our hatred toward the story instead. And that’s essentially why folks hate the advertisement so much.
Loving that Alpha
So if that’s why we hated the new Mac ads. Why did we love the old ones so much? Because we love watching true alpha males do what they do to be alpha. In fact, the Mac character epitomises the perfect modern alpha male.
He has his own dress style. It’s casual – but not dorky. But most importantly he is being who he is without trying too hard; as opposed to just some creepy personification of a corporate brand – the fantasy of a bunch of corporate executives. In the Get a Mac campaign the brand borrows from this confident identity. The character doesn’t borrow his identity from the brand.
He’s not servile. When does the Mac guy go out of his own way to help people. He certainly doesn’t exist merely to help other people the way the Apple Genius guy does.
But now for the most important aspect. The modern alpha male is a master at signalling that other males are in fact beta while at the same time appearing supportive and non-aggressive – and this is just what the Mac character does. This is one of the key arts of the modern alpha male – and a very subtle one. But if you pull it off – then the girls will go nuts for you. It has this power because on the one hand you demonstrate your superior fitness, while at the same time demonstrating that you will use your dominant position to maintain and encourage social cohesion. This is why the girls adore it. They love strong males – but they love social cohesion more.
(One might argue that because women selected for this trait over straightforwardly aggressive and violent males is perhaps why modern society was able to develop. Go women!)
But it’s a delicate art – like walking a tight rope. If you are too aggressive or obvious in your put down, then you will come across as mean. There are a couple of ways to mitigate this danger. Make the subject of your attack some obvious character flaw of the target – something that everyone else already perceives and agrees with. Alternatively, just be extremely witty in your delivery. People will end up laughing at your joke because they can’t help themselves. Irrespective of how you deliver this attack, you still need to also demonstrate that you nevertheless want harmony – of a sort – between you and this male. This isn’t easy to do when you’re making fun of them.
Check out how the Mac character does it in the ad below.
Notice how he acknowledges the strength of the PC before delivering the criticism. Implicit in his delivery is the idea that Macs are better at the stuff that we really care about – you know – life stuff. But he doesn’t say that openly. He doesn’t need to. Notice also how the put down comes right at the end of the clip. He chastises PC guy by asking him ‘what other kind of better’ was he thinking about? He isn’t too aggressive. He doesn’t just say the PC guy is full of crap. He uses a rhetorical question to make it salient to everyone that PC guy is being evasive in acknowledging the strength of the Mac. Thus the put down goes after an obvious character flaw of the PC guy. Mac guy is alpha not just because he is better at the stuff that matters (his apps) – but because he can admit the strength of others without feeling threatened.
This is perfect modern alpha male behaviour and that’s why we love to watch it. We are evolutionarily designed to like watching it. We evolved to be able to pick out such people and notice them. Good marketers know this. Because they know we’ll transfer the associated desires onto the product.
So that’s why we liked the old ads but not the new. This explanation won’t be convincing to just about anyone who reacted so strongly to both ads. We all want to believe that our reactions to such narratives are rational and well thought out. We don’t want to believe that the causes of our reactions to narratives aren’t transparent to us.
It’s an idea that I’ve been exploring quite a bit lately (see previous link) – because I believe it’s really important that we start believing it. I don’t like the fact that our natural instincts get co-opted in this way to sell merchandise. And neither should you. It’s not that it’s unethical (though it probably is) – it’s because it means people will end up buying stuff not because the products actually meet their needs in the best way for the lowest possible price. They end up buying stuff because they are satisfying various primal fantasies. This is bad for society. It’s inefficient and wasteful.
One of the reasons I write these articles on this blog is because I believe that a small amount of training in narrative technique insulates you a great deal from this sort of manipulation. Think about it – only a small degree of education in the population at large would be required to render these sorts of marketing campaigns a complete waste of time. This would be a great thing for capitalism.
Of course you have to be convinced first that our reactions are seldom as rational as we suppose. There will be more posts on this matter soon.