Creative director of Apple "genius" campaign quits

Scot Trattner, the executive creative director who oversaw the creation of Apple’s universally hated “Genius” television campaign, has quit his job at TBWA/Media Arts Lab.

He’s leaving for a similar post at agency 72andSunny, where he’ll get to work on more, smaller, brands instead of one humongous one.

Having created Apple’s “I’m a Mac” campaign, which was everything the “Genius” campaign wasn’t, Trattner’s no slouch at creating good, effective advertising.

Under the terms of his agreement with TBWA/MAL, Trattner can’t comment on the reasons for his departure. But with a swan song like that, he’s not exactly going out in a blaze of glory.

Only following orders?

According to Ad Age, though, Trattner and his “Genius” campaign creative team may have only been doing what they were told to do, namely, following through on a strategic inference Apple made, based on one datum from online research firm YouGov.

The datum was that Apple’s target audience had aged, from 18-34 to 35+.

The inference was that anyone over 35 is a senile, helplessly doddering idiot.

Both the datum and the inference are very, very flawed.

Flawed research?

YouGov e-mails links to a number of surveys every week. Its respondents comprise neither a representative nor a fresh sample.

The methodology eliminates people who don’t have computers with connectivity and, more to the point, who don’t want to click into and answer online survey questions. Since YouGov gives rewards points to frequent respondents, their surveys tend to reach — in fact, encourage reaching — the same unrepresentative audience sample over and over.

Their Apple datum results from correlating the answers to just one pair of questions with respondent ages.

The YouGov survey shows a screen with buttons for a dozen or so brands. It asks respondents first to click buttons for brands they’ve heard anything positive about (including advertising) the past week. Then it asks them to repeat the process for brands they’ve heard something negative about.

It doesn’t ask if they’ve used any of the brands. It doesn’t ask (at least in this part of the survey, which was the basis for their conclusion) if they’ve bought, or considered buying, them. It doesn’t even ask whether or not they like the brand.

It doesn’t ask what they think or feel — just about what they heard.

What YouGov does next is subtract the negative responses from the positives (or the opposite, depending on which is bigger) to come up with what they call the Brandindex Buzz, which they calculate over time (and over repeated surveys to many of the same sample consumers).

In Apple’s case,

Apple was measured with YouGov BrandIndex’s Buzz score, which asks “If you’ve heard anything about the brand in the last two weeks, through advertising, news or word of mouth, was it positive or negative?” All results were filtered for adults 18-34 and all adults 35 and over. YouGov BrandIndex measurement scores range from 100 to -100 and are compiled by subtracting negative feedback from positive. A zero score means equal positive and negative feedback.

Before July 2011, the 18-34 demographic Buzz scores lead [sic] those of the over 35s for the Apple brand. At the beginning of 2011, the younger demographic lead [sic] the older one with a 35 buzz score compared to 30.
Beginning in mid-May 2011, the 35+ demographic began a steady perception ascent that peaked shortly after the release of the iPhone 4S, soaring from a 25 Buzz score on May 17 to a 48 score on November 1st – the highest perception score this group has held for Apple in at least four years.

…When adults 35+ hit their peak score of 48 on November 1st, the 18-34 Buzz score was 13 points lower at 35.

The 35+ demo’s current Buzz score is 32, compared to the 18-34 Buzz score of 24.

You got that? Good. Because you won’t get what came next.

Unwarranted conclusion

There are many conclusions one could logically draw from these Buzz numbers.

You could conclude that, like all other folks, people who’d bought Apple computers in their teens and twenties years ago had gotten older. You could conclude that Apple’s broader product mix, which went beyond computers, had broadened the brand’s demographic appeal. (And age is a demographic.)

But this is what YouGov concluded, on what basis no one knows:

From early 2008 through mid-July 2011, Apple scored higher with the 18-34 demographic[,] but this group no longer constitutes Apple’s biggest banner wavers. There is another group, which may just need a “Genius” to help with their Apple productsIt appears that the 35+ demographic, which includes Boomers 50 and over, may need more product hand-holding than the younger group – hence the Genius. [emphasis added]

How does it “appear” from a question about hearing something positive or negative about Apple that “the 35+ demographic, which includes Boomers 50 and over, may need more product hand-holding”?

(Full disclosure: It’s been a while since I was 50, and the only times I ever needed “product hand-holding” from Apple was when something that wasn’t supposed to break on one of my Macs, did. And then I needed replacements and repairs, not hand-holding.)

Everyone’s out of step except Apple

“It appears that” Apple bought into this series of farfetched assumptions, but it’s even more apparent that virtually nobody else did.

  • “The hypothesis doesn’t add up,” says Andrew Jeske of New York City. “These ads were aimed at people who had no idea how to use Apple products, not fanboys who’ve grown older.”
  • “I am over 35, and I think those ads were embarrassingly awful,” Karen Kennedy of Great Falls, VA, adds.
  • Karen Loomis, of Phoenix, challenges the campaign’s assumption that growing older automatically makes you stupid. “Duh…if you’re a dumb dumb we have the perfect solution[,] our ‘geniuses’! C’mon,” she writes, “Apple/Mac products have been ridiculously intuitive since the beginning of time[,] unlike PCs. Plug an accessory into a Mac product [and] it doesn’t ask you to load software! I was almost ashame[d] of being an Apple/Mac fanatic after being subjected to t[h]ose ads.”
  • So does Mark Overlow, from Cleveland: “Apples’s fan base is indeed growing up, but that doesn’t mean they are losing what has always drawn them to Apple’s products: Ease of use…Are [the ads] then suggesting that as Apple users get older, they lose some of their [savvy] or Apple products become too complicated for them to use and understand? The ads are losers and go against the core strength of [Apple’s] branding.”

Words for a brand to live by

Apple’s lost a very good creative director (perhaps coincidentally).

They’ve also lost lots of customer goodwill and, over the long run, maybe lots of customers from the most affluent demographic group. Nothing coincidental about that.

Maybe they should stop spending money on half-baked assumptions and invest it instead on carving these words into every available wall of their new Spaceship headquarters in Cupertino, California:

You don’t sell people by insulting their intelligence.

  1. Good column, umm…Orange. (You really should take credit and sign your name here!)

    After reading what you wrote, I don’t see how Apple reached the conclusion YouGov did either. (And one would think Apple would take their misspelled brief with a grain of salt. If they can’t take 30 seconds to proofread their conclusions, how can you trust their reporting to be accurate?)

    As to your conclusion, though, I don’t have much of a choice. I have a Windows laptop for travelling [sic] and I shudder to think of having to rely on that OS for my main machine. And it’s far too late in the game for me to learn Unix from scratch. I have to stick with Apple or go back to the stone age.

    Funny how we have half a dozen or more different brands of cars, TVs, cereal and homebuilders to choose from, yet just two for mass OS usage…just as dumb and ridiculous as our two-party political system.


  2. I have a hard time believing that this one piece of faulty research drove the “Genius” campaign. If it did, the research proprietary (especially in a secretive company like Apple), not on a website where anybody could look at it and anybody that shared it could be in violation of an NDA.

    Even great agencies, creative and marketing people make mistakes. Big company pulls a universally reviled campaign. They move on. End of story. Heard it a million times.

    There’s plenty of blame to go around, but leaking this POS research sounds to me more like a rear view mirror cover story than a real explanation for the mistake.

    1. The YouGov post on the subject from which I quoted implied more of a connection than there turned out to be. According to an e-mail from and phone conversation with their SVP/marketing, it turned out to be, as you say, a rear-view mirror cover story.

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