I always looked forward to seeing new "I'm a Mac - I'm a PC" ads on television. As a long-time Mac fan and a marketing pro, I really admired these spots. They were smart and edgy, yet friendly. They were fun. They differentiated Macs from PCs. From a marketing perspective, they were appropriate to Apple's David fighting Microsoft's Goliath. And they worked really well, perhaps better than any other mass-market technology product ads.
Now I wince every time I see a new one, hoping its smug attitude and condescending tone doesn't go too far.
This guest post was written by Frank Cioffi.
I also relished how Apple's spots unhinged Microsoft, prompting the Goliath to produce its own, usually inept, TV ads that broke a major rule of marketing: never appear reactive to a smaller competitor. Microsoft's PC ads and the flurry of Ballmer-isms that accompanied them, all on the heels of the Windows Vista catastrophe, actually seemed to reinforce Apple's point.
But what has worked for Apple over the last three years doesn't seem to work as well now. Call it a psychographic observation, but the theme is getting tired, and the emotional impact of the ads has shifted. The superior, mocking tone of the ads sometimes goes too far, especially now as the new Windows 7 is being well received. Don't get me wrong. I'm a born-and-raised New Yorker. I like sarcasm. But for me, edgy has gone over the edge in some of these ads.
Do we Mac users tend to feel superior? Of course. We know we enjoy the world's most elegant operating system. But when a Mac evangelist like me starts feeling mildly apologetic about these spots and empathizing with the PC guy, something is amiss.
Does Apple's research show that prospective Mac customers, their intended audience, still like these ads? I assume so. But perhaps Microsoft's jab at Apple in its TV ads earlier this year (the one in which PC buyer Lauren says, "Maybe I'm not cool enough" to be a Mac person) was accurate, signaling that Apple's approach borders on arrogance, especially as it gains ever greater market share.
While Mac's market share still pales in comparison to Windows, Apple is no longer a David. With its omnipresent retail stores, the iconic iPod and the runaway popularity of the iPhone, Apple is a real and perceived leader. It has a market cap of over $170 billion and more cash than Cisco or Microsoft. Its TV ads, its recent mishandling of App Store developer issues and criticism from prominent tech journalists show that the Apple perception machine is showing cracks. The company is starting to appear arrogant.
To its credit, Apple's iPhone television ads are clean and crisp, relaying useful features and the latest apps. And not all of the Mac-PC ads are disdainful. The recent one with actor Robert Loggia as PC's coach is fun. But the spot portraying a top-of-the-line PC model as a semi-sleazy sales guy? That's when I cringe. The new spots reacting to Windows 7? Not so bad, but they still rely too much on criticizing Microsoft. There's a difference between conveying product superiority and having a superior attitude.
For this Mac fan, these ads are past their peak. They were great fun for a while. But it's time to shift the tone or move on. Certainly Apple's creative teams can come up with a follow-up act that is informative, entertaining and edgy, without sounding smug. Otherwise, Apple runs the risk of (gasp!) emulating Microsoft.
Guest author: Frank Cioffi is editor and publisher of Apple Investor News, the Apple-only news aggregator and part of the Tech Investor News network..