The high concept of Apple’s long-running “Get a Mac” TV campaign is that the characters portrayed by John Hodgman and Justin Long are personified computers. It’s right there in the opening lines of every ad in the series: “Hello, I’m a Mac.” “And I’m a PC.” Hodgman is not “Windows”; Long is not Mac OS X. They are not representative or average PC/Mac users. They are computers.
They’re not dressed as computers, they’re dressed as people. It’s postmodernism taken to a very silly and profoundly unserious commercial end.
But the concept reflects the actual business that Apple is in. Apple does not sell operating systems. They sell computers. Microsoft does not sell computers; they sell operating systems. (Apple’s boxed $129 versions of Mac OS X are just upgrades; they only work on computers that Apple has already sold.) Apple and Microsoft are undeniably engaged in one of the longest running and most interesting rivalries in business history, but it is very odd in that it is an orthogonal rivalry. Apple’s direct competition isn’t Microsoft but instead PC makers who sell computers running Windows.
This is not a minor semantic point. There is no argument that the single most distinguishing difference between a Mac and a PC is the OS. The genius in the conceit of Apple’s ads is that they acknowledge this without making Windows the target. They do so by diminishing Windows. Windows is just one element of what it is that makes PC (the character) who he is. The ads are neutral, sometimes even deferential, towards Microsoft. Vista is mocked, but several of the spots have emphasized how Microsoft Office works just great on a Mac. In at least one of the ads, Long’s Mac character even makes it a point that he can run Windows just as well as PC can, via Boot Camp.
The framing of Apple’s ads is not about either/or. Not a choice between two rival products, like Democrat/Republican, Chevy/Ford, Coke/Pepsi. The framing instead is special vs. regular. Not Coke vs. Pepsi but Coke vs. “soda”.
Windows is not the Mac’s rival or competitor. It is the omnipresent homogenizer that weighs PC down.
It doesn’t matter whether that is actually true. The point is that this is the role Apple has reduced Windows to in this advertising campaign. Windows is regular. The default. The norm. Mac OS X and the software that runs on it is special. It is something that the Mac can never lose and which the PC can never have.
And so what makes Microsoft’s new “I’m a PC” commercials so jaw-droppingly bad is that they’re not countering Apple’s message, but instead they’re reinforcing it. That the spots themselves jump between dozens of different people who “are” PCs, that the spots make a point of emphasizing that there are a billion Windows-running PCs worldwide, this only emphasizes that “PC” is not a brand name but a generic.
Microsoft’s new ads emphasize the same message as Apple’s: that the Mac is the one and only brand-name computer in the world.