Apple pulls rotten "Genius" ad campaign

Yesterday, so quietly that almost nobody noticed, Apple Computer pulled its three-commercial “Genius” campaign from the Olympics telecasts.

Disparaging custmers is a rotten way to sell them.

Unfortunately for them, advertising media noticed. So had consumers, who made the campaign what Ad Age called, “The…Ads Everyone Hated.”

Apple’s agency, TBWA/Media/Arts Lab, claimed that yanking the spots was part of the plan all along, since they were intended just as a “first run” during the Olympic games’ first weekend.

But a few extraneous factors may have had a little something to do with it.

Like that fact that as many YouTube commenter disliked the spots as liked them. This is in marked contrast to Apple’s Siri spot with Martin Scorsese, which got about 6,000 likes to only 700 dislikes, a nine-to-one ratio. (In fact, it’s gotten so bad that Apple disabled commenting.)

Or like the fact that prominent writers bloggers trashed them.

Jordan Weissman, at The Atlantic, for example, wrote:

The spots themselves aren’t exactly nauseating, just strangely disappointing when compared to Apple’s classic back catalog of commercials — the marketing equivalent of Michael Phelps’ fourth-place finish.”

Forbes’ Jacquelyn Smith went further:

People are decrying it as one of Apple’s most disappointing campaigns of all time, dubbing it “cheesy,” “cringe-worthy,” “intellectually cheap” and “poorly executed.”

Former Apple creative Ken Segall blogged:

These ads are causing a widespread gagging response, and deservedly so. I honestly can’t remember a single Apple campaign that’s been received so poorly.

And Joe Svetlik posted on CNET U.K. that:

The problem is they portray Apple customers, or wannabe Apple customers in the case of the last one, as idiots. Is that really the image Apple wants to give off? The ads also undermine one of the main selling points of a Mac — that it’s a complete doddle to use. The programs are supposed to be so simple you don’t need someone, or a 700-page guide, to tell you how to use it. You just pick it up and get started.

Undermining the basic sales premise

Svetlik put his finger on one of the campaign’s two main problems, and that is that very very nature of the commercials undermines the basic reason for spending more to buy an Apple computer than one of its PC competitors — its intuitive simplicity to operate.

True, Apple has been undermining that premise to some extent with its software, as its word-processing applications, for example, have gotten more and more Word-like, with more extra steps to do the same thing, over the years.

But these commercials, which feature a smarmy Apple “Genius” in a blue t-shirt helping owners work their Macs because either they’re too stupid or the machines are too complex,  reaches a new, rock-bottom level. The campaign tells prospects that if they’re going to spend in the low four figures for a Mac, they won’t be able to use it without constant help from this guy — because it takes a “Genius” to figure out how.


In the spot called “Basically,” the so-called Genius “points out there are a lot of things that separate a Mac from an ordinary computer, like great apps that come built in.”

This claim is disingenuous at best. Because as Apple giveth applications, it also, surreptitiously, taketh away.

For example, starting with the Snow Leopard operating system, the previously bundled Appleworks office productivity suite no longer ran smoothly or quickly. By the strangest of coincidences, Apple just happened to have a new office suite, available as a separate purchase at extra cost, that worked just fine.

The new Mountain Lion OS won’t support Appleworks at all. Nor will it support earlier versions of Quickbooks, Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign or even open-source apps like Open Office.

My four-year-old MacBook came with an adapter that mates with projectors, for PowerPoint and other presentations. That adapter came free. The new MacBook Air comes with a smaller projector port, which calls for a different adapter, which Apple now sells as an extra-cost accessory.

So if you give in to the badgering from the “Genius” and buy an Apple computer, you’ll have to spend almost as much again replacing and upgrading software (and some hardware).

That may be one reason why that particular commercial got even more negative votes than the other two.

Insulting your customers

Especially under the Steve Jobs regime, Apple was known for condescension to the customers whose purchases provided its revenues.

But this campaign goes beyond ignoring customers, beyond looking down on them, to outright insult.

As Rupal Parekh and Ann-Christine Diaz write ad Ad Age, the “Genius” actor’s main activity in the commercials is “ridiculing someone for not buying a Mac.”

This is a far cry from the ingratiating “Get a Mac” campaign, where John Hodgman and Justin Long personified PCs and Macs. There, Apple ridiculed the competing product, not the people who were considering buying it. “But instead of depicting the PC as a bumbling idiot,” Parekh and Diaz write, “the newest campaign makes the everyday consumer look the fool, as many have complained.”

People don’t buy from people who belittle them

Particularly as a local Richmond advertiser, you can’t afford to produce television campaigns only to have to scrap them the week after they start running.

Even more, you can’t afford to have customers stop buying from you and badmouthing you, with or without justification, to their friends and neighbors.

So if you don’t want prospective customers badmouthing you, don’t badmouth them. You wouldn’t stand for it in one of your sales reps. So, unlike Apple, you shouldn’t stand for it in your advertising.