Ken Segall on the New Apple Genius Ads

Ken Segall, former Apple ad guy, doesn’t like the new Apple “Genius” ads that aired during the Olympics. I’m with him. They are cheesy, of poor quality, and don’t portray Apple and its users in good light. In a blog post “New Mac Ads: Landing with a Serious Thud,” Ken decided to “talk with himself” to rationalize the ads:

“Ken, you’re missing the obvious. Clearly these ads are targeted at first-timers, not for you.”

That’s a seemingly logical defense. It’s also a horrible one. How many great campaigns have you seen that appeal to one target group, but turn off everyone else? There’s no excuse for a campaign like that. Apple’s momentum is fueled by the enthusiasm of its core customers. The last thing it wants is to win new customers at the cost of looking ridiculous to its enthusiastic supporters.

“But how can one campaign appeal to both crowds?”

How soon we forget. If it pleases the court, I present Exhibit A: the now-legendary Mac vs. PC campaign, which delivered 66 fantastic ads over a period of four years. Like the new campaign, Mac vs. PC was also aimed at switchers, but guess what — it was a massive hit with every level of Mac owner, from novice to pro. Those ads actually galvanized the Mac crowd to heavy up on the preaching. And look at the iPad ads. They’re hugely attractive to people who never got the technology bug. But they’re also alluring to those who have been using computers for years. Hmm. Maybe it can be done? To defend the new Mac ads by saying “Hey, they’re not aimed at you” is just a naive view of advertising.

“The Apple Genius idea is really rich. What’s your problem?”

Actually, I agree. The “idea” is pretty good. I’m not convinced it’s worthy of an ongoing campaign, but there is some good comedy in the basic concept. The problem is, a good idea is only half of the winning formula in advertising. The other half is execution — and that’s where this campaign went south.

“Be honest now. That Genius guy is perfectly cast.”

You’re kidding, right? He does an excellent job of fitting the stereotype of an Apple Store Genius, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. These spots are actually cast as if they’re sitcoms — with exaggerated characters like the father-to-be in Labor Day, or the passenger in Mayday, or the sleezy PC store owner in Basically. The spots try to make their points through comedy alone, with little sense of authenticity in characters or situations.

“I laughed out loud more than once.”

I did think that concept of Mayday was funny. But the smiles were mighty hard to come by after that. If you’re going to go the sitcom route — and that’s a very big “if” — you’ll need some writers who are up to the task. The script for Basically just makes me squirm. It’s like going to open mike night at the local comedy club.

“I did wonder if it was a good idea to make customers seem so clueless.”

Therein lies another problem with this campaign. In the effort to show that the Genius is the most helpful guy in the world, Apple has created customers who, shall we say, are on the dim side. In past ads, Apple has shown “ordinary people doing extraordinary things,” simply because Apple products are so easy to use. Now we have thick people who want to be better, but need a Genius to help. Not exactly flattering.

“These ads are very unexpected. Isn’t that what Apple’s all about?”

It’s great to be unexpected. But if you’re not true to the brand, being unexpected just makes you look silly. The Mac vs. PC campaign was unexpected, but its cleverness was in sync with the Apple brand. Absolutely, these ads are very unexpected for Apple — just not of the quality we’re used to.

It’s the best takedown of the ads I’ve read yet, and from a guy who knows what’s he talking about.

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