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Where Apple's Boy Genius Went Wrong

By Chris Maxcer MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Aug 9, 2012 5:00 AM PT

Apple produced a set of three terrible ads that ran on television for the first part of the Olympics.

Where Apple's Boy Genius Went Wrong

They featured a cute and likeable Apple Genius boy/man out in public in his Apple Genius blue t-shirt helping hapless individuals. They didn't exactly resonate with me, but hey, any commercial that doesn't freakin' sing to me gets ignored. And it didn't take long to flip my ignore switch with these.

Then I noticed some chatter about other people thinking they were bad, plus a headline or two that jumped the gun and implied that Apple yanked them from the Olympics run because they were nowhere near medal contention.

So what the heck is going on here?

First of all, we're not sure that Apple yanked them, but you can be sure that Apple would have kept them around if there were performing fantastically. Apple knows how to spend money on great ads. The ad agency TBWA/Media/Arts Lab reportedly scheduled them to end quickly into their Olympic run. Hmmm.

What's Wrong With Genius Boy?

In any event, what's so wrong with these ads?

On the surface, they seem mildly humorous at best, cutesy at worst. There's nothing wrong with the kid who plays the main character Genius boy in the ads, and he seems likable enough. If you check out the ads on Apple's site, here's the basics that you'll find:

Mayday: The scene is on an airplane, and the captain calls out over the plane's speaker system asking if there's a Genius on board. The kid in the blue shirt looks up in surprise and wonder (actually pretty excellent acting here) and stammers out that he's a Genius. An attendant takes him up to seat 3B, where the Genius helps out an Apple user guy who is freaking out because he forgot his anniversary and wants to make his wife an iMovie. The Genius talks him through it. The attendant comes back and says gravely, "We have two minutes ... 21F is working on a keynote." And the Genius and anniversary guy immediately head off to go help.

Basically: In this one, a guy on the street with a brown shopping bag calls out the Genius boy and says that he basically just bought a Mac, implying that he's part of the Mac group now. Chums, so to speak. "Basically, it looks like a Mac," the guy says. The Genius is confused, so he asks if it came loaded with all of the great apps like iPhoto, iMovie, GarageBand ... and then there's a cutaway to the "basically" genius salesperson across the street in one of those low-end electronic knock-off stores looking all sleazy. Then comes the slow realization that the guy who was happy didn't really buy a Mac.

Labor Day: A frazzled and frantic guy in a robe knocks on the apartment door -- "G" -- of the Genius at 4 a.m. The Genius, obviously sleeping in his blue t-shirt, throws on his Genius ID lanyard (off-screen) and answers the door. The frazzled guy is Mr. Green, his wife is having a baby (presumably right this minute) and he wants to make a photo card to announce the birth. The Genius says you can make cards with iPhoto, use themes, and shouldn't he call an ambulance? Yes. But what about photo albums for the grandparents? OK, you can make really neat coffee table books ... "and we can talk about all that on the way to the hospital," the Genius says, closing the door and guiding the soon-to-be father in the right direction.

Oh Boy - Are You Seeing What I'm Seeing?

For starters, these ads cast Apple users as idiots. Apple products are supposed to be so easy to use that they don't come with user manuals. These ads start off on the wrong foot immediately by implying that you need a Genius to help you do things. Sure, they are funny and all, plus they are obviously hyperbolic, but the core point remains: These ads, while purporting to talk about what you can do with a Mac, are the exact opposite of everything Apple users buy their Apple products for. You just don't shell out premium prices for fancy-pants products to freak out with them. (Or be so dumb as to think you're buying a Mac but really getting a fake -- nobody likes to be scammed.)

There's more that's wrong, though.

Most of Apple's best ads of recent years past have focused on the product, on what it does and what it can do, and by showing a close relationship of what those things bring to a person. These aren't so much anecdotes or cute little story scripts as they are about evoking emotions -- remember the dancing silhouette ads for the iPods? Edgy. Cool. Happy and fun. And the music was perfectly chosen to stoke the fire in a potential buyer.

Remember all the app ads? Many of them had quick musical scores while showing screens of games and of apps, of pins dropping down onto a map to find a restaurant. They had energy, emotion, and it wasn't something that tried to be too tangible. They were full of promise and possibility.

Even the Siri ads were about promise and possibility. Sure, I can't pronounce gazpacho like Samuel L. Jackson on "Date Night," but the ad is about a small moment in time, about capturing a feeling and essence through Siri. There's barely any story and there sure as heck isn't a skit.

Other Siri ads, like the one featuring a pink pajama-wearing Zooey Deschanel looking out at a rainy day and ordering in tomato soup. The ad isn't a story, it's about using your iPhone and Siri to go about your day -- a rainy day. And with a dancing Deschanel, you can't really go wrong.

And in fact, this is part of what's wrong with the Genius boy ads -- the kid is great, but the stories are wrong. Even if you're not a John Malkovich fan, his Siri ads fit the Malkovich persona he's created in various movies over the years. For non-Malkovich fans, the ads are boring, but they don't ask you to imagine that Apple buyers are frantic idiots. Even if you don't appreciate the ads, you sort of have to know there's a subtext going on with the mood of the ad ... and that's OK because Apple buyers are smart buyers (or so we all think).

The iPad ads, like the "Do It All" ad gloriously shows off the iPad's display in action with just a series of phrases -- send a note, stay informed, catch a show, make your point, make a memory, make a masterpiece, read something, watch something, and learn something. These phrases, combined with the iPad screen action, evoke feelings, emotions, and imply that the viewer can do these things.

Of course, for non-Apple lovers, maybe these Genius ads are really funny. Maybe they are engaging. But for Apple fans, especially for those who know a little about Apple, they just invite all sorts of lines of thought that don't help sell products. For instance, Apple is almost psychotically controlling of how Apple Retail Store employees represent themselves, and I'm pretty damn sure they're not allowed to board airplanes in their blue shirts wearing their ID badges, much less help anyone outside of the pretty confines of the stores as if they are Geniuses. Apple Geniuses can be superheroes inside the Apple Store, but outside, they're Clark Kent. This can set up a vague disruption of a viewer's ability to suspend disbelief, which hampers their ability to enjoy the funny skit.

The Ads Futz With Your Identity

Last of all, the reason why these well-made Genius ads don't work is that they futz with your identity. I don't believe that many people want to be some slickly dressed guy in 3B who's frantic on the plane because he has too much video footage to make an iMovie for his wife as a lame anniversary present. We definitely don't want to be the guy who bought a Mac knockoff from a slimy sales guy, and we certainly don't want to be the guy who loses focus when his wife is about to deliver their child.

No, the very best Apple ads have always evoked a sense of who you are as a person and who you want to be. Do you want to enjoy your life? Enjoy books, movies, games? Do you want to create? Take video and make vacation videos that capture the very best parts of your life? Do you want to have the answers at business meetings? Play music? Share?

There are two reasons why Apple's famous "I'm a Mac and I'm a PC" ads were a raging success: First, the actors were pitch perfect all the time. This was lucky, just like T-Mobile was lucky in finding the insanely cute T-Mobile girl in the amazing pink dress. A different girl, a different dress and those ads might have fallen flat. There's magic and luck here, we have to admit that. Oh, and the second reason? The Mac and PC ads invited the viewer to be like a Mac, too -- to be cool, fun, hip, reliable, and while not without irony, to not to be snarky. To be a Mac person doesn't mean you have to be a pretentious ass.

And it all started back with the first 1984 ad, of course, the one where Anya Major throws the hammer at the massive TV screen: The best Apple ads invite the viewer to align themselves with an identity, and since we all can't be Apple Geniuses, we sure as heck don't want to be hapless idiots. And that, I believe, is why these ads just don't speak to us.

MacNewsWorld columnist Chris Maxcer has been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and he still remembers the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. While he enjoys elegant gear and sublime tech, there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. To catch him, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at Gmail.com.

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