Hi, I'm a Mac… Beep, beep!

September 6, 2008 11:04 AM

It's pretty common, when reading discussion of Apple's “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” ads, to come across the comment:

Sure, they're great ads but they don't work. John Hodgeman’s PC is far more likeable than Justin Long’s smug hipster Mac.

This is missing the point. To illustrate, here are director Chuck Jones’ rules for writing Road Runner cartoons, copied from Wikipedia:

  1. Road Runner cannot harm the Coyote except by going “beep, beep”.
  2. No outside force can harm the Coyote—only his own ineptitude or the failure of Acme products.
  3. The Coyote could stop anytime—if he was not a fanatic. (Repeat: “A fanatic is one who redoubles his effort when he has forgotten his aim.” —George Santayana).
  4. No dialogue ever, except “beep, beep”.
  5. Road Runner must stay on the road—for no other reason than that he's a roadrunner.
  6. All action must be confined to the natural environment of the two characters—the southwest American desert.
  7. All tools, weapons, or mechanical conveniences must be obtained from the Acme Corporation.
  8. Whenever possible, make gravity the Coyote's greatest enemy.
  9. The Coyote is always more humiliated than harmed by his failures.
  10. The audience's sympathy must remain with the Coyote.

Substitute Microsoft for Acme, software failures for gravity, a plain white background for the desert… well, you get my drift.

If Apple had gone the traditional route of portraying Microsoft as a gigantic monopolistic borg, great at crushing competition through market pressure but capable of developing only mediocre products, the ads would have been boring. More accurate, perhaps, but boring. They'd have been the 30 Seconds Hate, and that’s just so last century. Instead Apple portray the PC as mostly well-meaning, likeable, goofy… but completely ineffectual.


Nailed it!

Absolutely brilliant comparison.

It's far more effective this way, isn't it? An ineffective but powerful character maintains the intimidating effects of power; an ineffective and powerless character evokes sympathy at worst, derision at best.

You might sympathise -- or even identify with -- PC guy but you wouldn't buy software from him! Good call by whoever makes Apple's ads.

Never thought of it that way. That was NICE!

I just said that in a Fark thread a few weeks ago. Not in as much detail, but that the Mac vs. PC was Roadrunner vs. Coyote.

Now the only thing left to analyze... why do so many PC people see Justin Long's performance as "smug" or superior or somehow jerky. The Mac is never anything but courteous, helpful, solicitous, and sympathetic; that's almost all the Mac ever does. Yet PC people manage to see whatever they want to see in Long's performance. One aspect might be that Justin Long is young and reasonably good-looking, while most nerds... aren't.

Great comparison, it really does ring true :)

I have to agree with Matt above, I fail to see how the Mac is smug in any way. Then, I'm kind of on the Mac side of the spectrum (just not as good looking :P )

I have thought the same thing, Matt. While it's true that the Mac possesses all of those qualities, Justin Long's clothing or mannerisms do seem to carry a sort of "cool" or "hipster" vibe to them, so the nerd culture subset of PC users continue to associate the Mac as a personality with their social dislike for stereotypical Starbucks customers who like granola. I believe you may be right about appearances, and I wonder what people would think of the ad campaign if the Mac were portayed by someone who wore plain, casual apparel and looked more like John Hodgman (who is not unattractive, to be sure, but is also not terribly handsome as far as men in TV ads go these days).

The "beep beep" rule is interesting, because according to Ellen Feiss, that's typically been the dialog reserved for PCs.

Matt, thanks for saying what I've been trying to explain to friends for months now. Just because Long is always written as being right, people project smugness upon the character out of some sort of resentment.

The characters do not merely represent two companies. They are personifications of Uninformed Upper Management and Creative/Production Department (speaking only from personal experience -- substitute your particular workgroup here).

Long's character represents people I work with: the ones who are required to work within technological constraints that have more to do with traditional IT thinking than with productivity. Hodgman is the b-school buffoon whose technology decision-making is dependent upon Microsoft-trained zealots. The guys who personify the word "smug" every time they talk about Mac users.

Your unix command is cute, but invalid. That command would overwrite your blog if it was ever restarted. It should be >> blog.

That command would overwrite your blog if it was ever restarted.

Well, yeah, what do you think would happen if the author restarted the blog?

If you have problems with that command, your mind may be missing.

:-) @ completely ineffectual.
Even after several years (I got my 1st Mac product 2 years ago), Mac is still considered a new thing down here. It hasn't been distributed to the whole parts of the country so we are not 'there' (the smug) yet. I for one like it a lot.
This is nice!

The analogy to the Roadrunner/Coyote seems apt. However, now that you point it out, it makes me wonder if it is a good idea to promote the Mac with commercials that make the Coyote/PC a sympathetic character.

The PC has to be a sympathetic character because they're trying to attract PC users.

to Matt Chaput:
"[...] why do so many PC people see Justin Long's performance as "smug" or superior or somehow jerky [?]"

I'm an Apple-Fangirl as they come, but even *I* find the Justin-Long-character slightly obnoxious. It's probably not even the character himself(*), but the whole set-up does make him come across rather smug.

Having said that, I believe it's still a brilliant campaign: I love the jokes at "PC's" expense - most of the criticism I know to be true. But "PC" is such a cuddly-wuddly lovable dork that I'd never mock him. Instead I feel (slightly) sorry for him, but basically just would love to help him get out of his troubles... for example explain to him how he could become a "Mac".

Now substitute "PC" with "my friends, who still own a PC", and "become" with "get", and see where this is going...

For me the meta-message is this: Don't be smug -- be helpful. Justin Long sort of epitomizes the caricature of the arrogant Mac-user, but who wants to be like him, anyway? I know who I am, and I find John Hodgman adorable, and would love to help him. And not in a condescending way, either.


(*) To be honest: I've never liked Justin Long as an actor.

P.S.: By the way: I must admit, that I found the latest Microsoft-commercial a brilliant piece of sophisticated fun. Now if only their products were as good....

This is a brilliant analysis, maybe more so in my mind because I have always loved the Roadrunner cartoons and it wasn't until I was an adult that I appreciated the genius of Chuck Jones.

But I have to add that I think the ascribing of the "arrogant" trait to Justin Long's character is more about the fact that any Mac user I know (and I have been one since '85) has always known that he/she has access to a superior tool and it is impossible not to just pity the typical PC user a little bit as they struggle so valiantly either with their computer's shortcomings or in trying to justify why they really have the better tool.

Of course that can come across as arrogant if you are on the other end of a discussion with a Mac user, particularly the more passionate among us. But my experience is usually that the truly arrogant are usually the ones using an Acme computer.

And we all know what Operating System those will be running, right?

On second thought, scrap this whole premise. It is impossible not to be a bit arrogant and be a Mac user. Just can't be done.

Very well put. I've been watching the ads and you summarized it very nicely in one sentence.

I don't know if I'd call Justin Long - Mac - "smug". But I can see how it happens.

For one, PC is the one you focus on, since he's carrying the comedy in the ads. The Mac is in some ways the "straight guy" foil to PC's comedy. But unfortunately he also sucks all the comedy out of the ad whenever he says anything other than "Hi, PC" or "PC, what are you doing?" Whenever there's actual information to be conveyed by Mac ("Oh, yeah, thanks to [Apple product X] I can do that too - and better") it's a boring sales spiel. It doesn't further the comedy.

Also, the whole point of the ads are to show that Macs are superior - that's not exactly secret (it is after all a commercial). When you know that that's the point of the ads, and Mac doesn't act smug, it seems like false modesty - which is really smug.
It's weird, since ads usually work the other way, with their content trying to make a certain point. But in this case, the conclusion is known, and if the ad tries to sneak around the issue it seems disingenuous. I think this might be an important aspect in people's perception of Long's character.

Lastly: There are definitely similarities between the Coyote and PC, but there aren't as many between Roadrunner and Mac. Where Roadrunner is bemused by Coyote's elaborate traps (and their subsequent failure), Roadrunner doesn't otherwise show any interest what Coyote's doing.
Mac, meanwhile, seems intent on helping poor PC, who's so endearingly stupid and incapable. If Roadrunner stopped to help Coyote out of the Coyote-shaped hole in the road after a bad fall, and said "There, there now. Don't feel bad. You'll never be able to catch me, but you're still a goooood coyote" or "Dude, tone it down. You're embarrassing!" you'd think Roadrunner's being a prick.
Unfortunately, that's pretty much how the Mac "character" acts with regard to PC. Where Coyote is driven and ingenious while Roadrunner is blissfully ignorant, PC is a classic underdog, and Mac seems overtly not-threatened by him. If Mac mocked PC, it'd might actually seem less arrogant.

Oh, and always greeting people with your hands in you pockets is just rude. That too adds to the aura of smugness.

Full disclosure: I'm a Mac fanboy, I think John Hodgman is an excellent comedian, and I don't really give a rat's ass about Justin Long - so I guess I'm not in the target demographic at all :)

Errata: In my post above, Roadrunner's second imaginary comment should have been "you're embarrassing me!"
I.e. Roadrunner isn't being confrontational, but a self-centered ass.

Thank you, Chuck Jones, for not writing Roadrunner that way :)

Interesting points all (and sorry Fishbowl if I sidetracked the conversation ;)

Great analysis! But I wonder how many people like me tuned in every week to watch the roadrunner/coyote cartoons hoping that the coyote would actually succeed one day. Don't want that to happen with the Mac/PC ads.

The PC isn't Microsoft, mind you. He's just a poor little computer forced to run Windows. That's why we (and Mac) sympathise: "poor guy, can't run Mac OS".

Even as an Apple User I still have to say you're right. Hogman is the better character and much more fun to WATCH. BUT - the Mac is still more fun to USE. ; )

It seems that the 'smugness' of Mac is due to his relative proximity to PC. In other words, since PC is so endearing and likable but also deeply flawed the lack of such flaws by Mac is seen as smugness - particularly when he points it out.

so, is pirates of the silicone valley close to the truth, or is it just hollywood...

I think what Daniel said above about false modesty hits the nail on the head, at least for me. Maybe it's just because of the commercial setting, but the Mac guy's sympathy never seemed sincere to me. I always felt like he was laughing at the PC guy the whole time on the inside.

Hah. Never knew there were written rules for the roadrunner cartoons.

I still think the ads make Apple look mean spirited and petty (which is probably accurate.)

The problem with the commercials as I see it, is that they are insulting the intended audience. Why preach to the choir? Those who use Macs' already love them and won't change anyway. So they're essentially saying in these commercials, PC users are dumb and goofy. How does that make those of us who use PC's either because we like them or because we have to (for work, etc.) make use want to buy a Mac? Personally I feel offended by them.

And for the record, I've used both considerably, and Mac's are not at all what you make them out to be. windows has issues, were agreed ... but so do Macs...

.NET developer and proud of it...

There was discussion about this exact issue after the first round of I'm a Mac, I'm a PC ads; PC was deemed more likable than Mac. After that was mentioned, on DF I believe, I noticed that PC suddenly became a bit snarkier and passive aggressive while Mac became a bit less smug and more tolerant. I think making PC too likable was having an adverse affect. That observation, I didn't ever see anywhere. It was subtle, but there was a shift.

I really like the RR rules - they just don't make cartoons like they used to!

Persons reviling Justin Long ...

note that the Roadrunner 'toons are NOT ABOUT the Roadrunner, they're about Wile E. Coyote. Similarly, the PC vs Mac commercials are NOT ABOUT the Mac, they're about PC. Justin Long is supposed to fade into the background, and is only there to provide PC a target to flail (and fail) against.

The intent? Your guess is as good as mine (well, not really), but I think it is simply to make the viewer smile, and have a light-hearted moment, that over time gets associated with ... of course .. the Mac. Belittling the PC is a distant second.

This appears to be the course that the Bill Gates - Jerry Seinfeld commercials are following as well. This could be the beginning of a wonderful trend in TV commercials -- commercials that are fun to watch.

If lots of people are missing the point, the point has not been delivered effectively. It's no good to say "this is what you should be seeing in these ads", the ads have to speak for themselves.

but who likes the roadrunner? he's smug and annoying. I always rooted for the coyote. he kept trying.

I enjoyed this post, although it seems a far too elaborate way to respond to the observation that people like John Hodgman's character better than Justin Long's.

They're a Comedy Duo act, and Justin Long is the "straight man" - with John Hodgman playing Costello to his Abbott.

It's no mistake that the straight man represents the Mac: how could the audience feel pity for the PC if they don't like him? Brilliant, deliberate design.

The difference being that Apple's ad aren't a story, they're selling a product. It introduces bias and causes suspicion. The smugness overfills and convinces you of nothing.

Think about it like this: if the cartoon was supposed to be a representation of the real world, and it was made by road runners, wouldn't you be a little suspicious of the one-sidedness of it all? You'd ask yourself what they're trying to sell.

All the analysis about the PC being more lovable, while correct, is missing the point of the ad.

Instead, ask yourself this: If you had to *BE* Wile E. Coyote or the Roadrunner, which would you choose?

In real life, the coyote -- more often, then not -- eats the roadrunner. And it is true in this case, as well. Apple does not make less buggy, easier-to-use, or even more secure software than Microsoft. They just made up a commercial to pretend that they do.

The ads do work, the typical forum response is wrong, but so is your explanation why.

Daniel gets it right in the comments above - the comparison of PC to Coyote may be accurate, but the implied comparison of Mac to Roadrunner is not. The Mac character does not just say "beep beep", but explains exactly why he is better than the PC rather than letting the audience judge this for themselves. The fact that roadrunner is a fast-moving cypher is what makes it work.

I thought the road runner says meep meep

You almost got it right. I agree that Apple was smart to stay away from a Borg stereotype of the PC and instead make the PC out to be goofy and ineffectual, but I think they did not get the Mac side right. They portray the Mac as a hipster douche-bag that I'd like to punch in the face for no particular reason except that he annoys me just by looking at him...

So, yes, Apple succeeds in communicating the logical message that the PC is ineffective and the Mac is productive, but Apple fails with the emotional message they leave with the viewer. Long after the commercial is over, I still have warm feelings about the PC guy. Whereas long after I have forgotten what a good job the Mac guy may have done, I am left with feelings of loathing and hatred for him.

Which is more important in a commercial -- the logical message or the emotional message?

I own a Mac and an iPhone :-P

Isn't the fact that people are pointing it out independently proof enough? Explaining it away doesn't do anything but appease apple fans.

I own two iMacs, a powerbook, and an iPod and I hate those ads: mostly because I get typecast as a snooty mac user for using technology I like to use in some situations.

Not everyone wants to (or cares enough to) pick sides about these kinds of things. Can't the ads just go over what makes a mac better than a PC without villifying it?

Of course, you'd have to use the word "unix", which at least in my little circle is a lot of the reason people buy them. :)

Apple has been running these ads for a long time, which is proof that they feel the ads are effective. As for running ads that don't tackle Windows head on, Apple did that for years with little to show for it. An earlier commented nailed it: This is advertising, and in advertising you go for an emotional response. Just look at the election ads. They are almost completely devoid of substance.

I am somewhat ashamed to admit it, because despite being a life-long Road Runner fan, I was not familiar with the great Chuck Jones Rules for writing a Road Runner cartoon.

Great analysis of the Apple's Mac/PC ads. Being in the ad biz for three decades, I would not be surprised to discover those responsible for the ads knew of Jones' Rules, or were so inspired by the Road Runner cartoons, that they got the essence of the Rules just from watching them. Which, speaking from hindsight, would not be hard for writers to do.

Now here's the thing about the "I'm a Mac/I'm a PC" ads (and the iPod ads as well)... they are not typical advertising attempts of the "compel the consumer to buy" variety. (Most of which fails, btw.)

They are "brand awareness" ads.

Great! I love the Road Runner analogy. However, with respect to the PC character being more likeable, and those who go to great lengths to point that out, the first point you make is the most telling. To declare that the ads don’t work only serves to confirm that they just don’t get it. Of course the goofy incompetent is more lovable. His likeability focuses all the more attention on the notion that he is, in fact, incompetent. The objective is not to get you to love Mac and hate PC. Justin’s admittedly smug Mac nonetheless never overtly criticizes Windows or those who use it. The ”some people just want” line suggests that those who use Windows may have different priorities. It’s a subtle jab, but it’s part of the genius of this campaign. Unfortunately, subtlety is lost on some people.

You absolutely nailed it! You know it's funny when you see the formula, you know it's a formula but you just can't remember where you saw it before. Incredibly insightful!

The purpose of ads is to SELL the product. If these ads did not work, as is purported above, they wouldn't be aired for month after month. Obviously, they do work! Remember the Coke ads with Mean Joe Greene and his jersey being given to the kid, or the one where a diverse crowd gathers on a hillside to sing "I'd like to buy the world a Coke..."? They won awards, but did not SELL MORE Coke, so they were pulled. They were replaced by ads with a kid riding a bike to a local store and being refreshed by a cold Coke. These ads did not win any awards, but they sold more Coke! The same logic applies here. I'll wager the Mac brand attributes have grown as have sales as a result of these ads. Thus, they are doing what they are supposed to do - sell more product. Unless the viewer is extremely naive, they know that is what ads are supposed to do.

Did you also notice that the PC is dressed in brown tones while the Mac is in blue tones? Exactly like the Coyote and the Road Runner.

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