Intel Goes Long

David Griner, writing for AdWeek:

“It’s a fun challenge: How do you highlight the limitations that Mac users just live with and help highlight that we have a more compelling choice available with PCs?” said John Coyne, Intel’s vp of brand, creative and media. “Who better to help us tell that story than Justin Long, who spent more than four years and 66 commercials representing the personification of ‘I’m a Mac’?”

I’m sure some will claim to find this ad campaign to be a sick burn. I find it cringey, and kind of hard to watch. It’s neither parody nor sequel. It’s an attempt at comedy from writers who have no sense of humor. The concept isn’t actually anything beyond “Let’s hire Justin Long as our new pitchman, that’ll show them.” One gets the feeling, early on, that there was an uncomfortable phone call to Justin Long from his agent that began, “Before you say ‘no’, at least let me tell you how much money they’re offering.” The concept wouldn’t really work with anyone other than Justin Long. (Did Intel make an offer to John Hodgman? Does Long hold a grudge that he didn’t get called back to appear in the M1 event after-credits scene?)

The spots start, briefly, in a white void, like the original Apple campaign, with Long starting with his iconic “Hello, I’m a…” but interrupting himself to say “… Justin, just a real person doing a real comparison.” Just enough of a touch of momentary parody to hammer home that the “I’m a Mac” guy is now pitching for Intel, but nowhere near enough to be conceptually clever. And then all of a sudden he walks into… a living room?

The truly weird thing is that Justin Long was always pitching for Intel-based computers, at least indirectly, in the “Get a Mac” campaign, the introduction of which coincided with the start of the Intel Mac era: 2006-2009.

To my recollection, Apple never once advertised that its Intel-based Macs were Intel-based. They definitely mentioned it on stage during new Mac hardware product introductions (starting with Steve Jobs calling then-Intel-CEO Paul Otellini on stage, wearing a bunny suit, at Macworld Expo in January 2006 to help introduce the first ones). But they never ran ads that mentioned Intel, unless I’m forgetting them. Maybe they had print ads which mentioned specs? But the whole reason Intel is able to make marketing hay today over Justin Long starring in ads telling people not to buy a Mac is that Apple never emphasized that the Macs Justin Long did pitch a decade ago all had Intel chips.

Likewise, I don’t believe Intel has ever mentioned Apple or the Mac in TV commercials before these new spots. Prior to 2006, they didn’t have to (and by the mid-2000s were actively courting Apple’s business). But post-2006, I’m guessing they weren’t able to. Apple didn’t want Intel emphasizing that the guts of a Mac were no different than Windows PCs — a broad generalization, I know, but basically true when it came to raw CPU system performance. And it’s not like Intel was going to throw shade at any of its “regular” PC customers.

Compare and contrast with the massive co-marketing campaigns Apple does with iPhone cellular carriers like AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile. Apple runs its own iPhone ads (billboards, magazines, TV) with carrier logos — partially paid for by the carrier, and the carriers are permitted (presumably with Apple’s ad-by-ad approval, but I don’t know) to run their own ads with iPhone-specific promotions. Apple’s iPhone carrier partnerships are much more partner-y than its relationship with Intel ever was.

So one of my takeaways from this new “Go PC: Justin Gets Real” campaign is that it highlights just how unusual Apple’s relationship with Intel has been. The Mac was an Intel-based platform — not just x86 but Intel chips specifically — for 15 years, yet neither company ever advertised it.

Messaging-wise, these new spots are just a litany of the same talking points we’ve been hearing from PC makers and Microsoft for the last few years — that PC laptops offer things you can’t get on a Mac: touch screens, detachable screens, and stickers on the palm rests.1

Intel’s gaming spot is the most interesting, because it feels the most fair. Gaming is a legitimate advantage for PCs. In the ad, Long approaches a (slightly surly, to be honest) young man who is playing a racing game on a PC laptop. You can tell he’s a gamer because he’s wearing Razer headphones and sitting in a cool chair. “You’re doing all this gaming on a laptop?” Then: “Do we have a Mac here?” and the camera pans to a lonely MacBook at an empty desk with an uncool chair. “Pff, no one really games on a Mac” our gamer tells Long.

That’s sort of a weird thing for Intel to be bragging about, given that the Mac just spent 15 years on Intel’s chip architecture. Bragging about PC gaming versus Mac gaming would make a lot more sense coming from Microsoft (because of Windows, the OS the games run on) or Nvidia (because of their video cards, which Apple famously doesn’t use). Apple’s relationship with Intel is so fresh that most of the pro-level Mac models Apple sells today are still Intel-based. We talk about it in the past tense but it’s like a divorce where one of the spouses still hasn’t moved most of their stuff out of the apartment. It’s almost enough to make you think that being on Intel didn’t do much for the Mac, gaming-wise, and that whatever the reasons for the Mac’s position as a relative afterthought in gaming, it has a lot more to do with MacOS vs. Windows than CPU chip architecture.

And it’s even worse when you consider that in the PC gaming space, Intel is losing the CPU race to AMD. Nvidia is the champion in the GPU space, but AMD is at least a player, a contender in that market. Intel’s video cards? It’s embarrassing. I don’t think it’s a stretch to wonder whether the Mac will occupy a stronger gaming position in the Apple Silicon future — where Apple can build off iOS’s gaming success — than they did while the Mac was Intel-based and the best way to run many games on Mac hardware was to install Windows. And this gaming argument is the strongest point Intel has.

When you get into the details of Apple’s move away from Intel, it doesn’t look good for Intel. These Intel ads make it feel like the Mac was always excluded from Intel’s platform, like the 15-year Intel Mac era didn’t happen (let alone the fact that it still hasn’t closed). When in fact the truth is that Apple could have stayed on Intel for as long as they wanted, and instead chose to spend the last 10 years building up their own chip designs so they could leave Intel behind. Apple’s not moving the Mac from Intel to its own chips because it was the easier path.

So, who are these ads for? (That’s generally a good question to ask about any ads.) With Apple’s original Get a Mac campaign, the target audience was clear: Windows PC users who were open to the idea of switching to the Mac. Get people to try a Mac — that was the point. The point of these ads feels entirely defensive, reactionary even: Don’t switch.

Last but not least, I hope Justin Long’s thumbs are OK.

  1. What can I say? We like our own stickers better.” What a great ad lib that was. It was very funny and very true, but didn’t throw Intel under the marketing bus. ↩︎