Flow Favorites: The Myth of Classlessness in Apple’s “Get a Mac” Campaign
Randall Livingstone / University of Oregon
Every few years, Flow’s editors select our favorite columns from the last few volumes. We’ve added special introductions and included the original comments to the piece below. Enjoy!
Flow Editor Alfred Martin:
Often mass mediated imagery projects a notion that everyone is middle class
and that the American dream has been achieved. This notion of classlessness
is at the heart of Randall Livingstone’s article “The Myth of Classlessness
in Apple’s ‘Get a Mac’ Campaign.” What is wonderful about this article is
that it dissects the way in which myth is created (drawing from Roland
Barthe’s Mythologies) and how that myth has been transferred onto a binary
between Mac (which is an exemplar of all things trendy and innovative) and
the PC (which is stodgy, old school and outmoded). This notion of the Mac
as indicative of cultural capital can particularly be seen on airplanes and
university classrooms where owning a Mac gives its owner “cool points” among
her or his peers for being in the “In” crowd. It is not necessarily that
the Mac is better per se, as much as it has been better marketed as a
product imbued with notions of socioeconomic success in a consumer-driven
culture and has become an arbiter of coolness and innovation.
One of the many things I love about this article is that it doesn’t engage
with race, gender or age (although those areas are another extraordinarily
rich site for a critique of the “Get a Mac” campaign) but instead examines
an area that as media scholars we don’t often interrogate: class.
Livingstone’s smart, crisp and effective critique of the “Get a Mac”
campaign is what makes this article a Flow favorite for 2011.
Perhaps pulling a page from the Seinfeld playbook, Apple decided to end the four-year run of its now iconic “Get a Mac” television and Internet campaign in May 2010 while still on top of the advertising world. That same month, AdWeek named the campaign the best of the 2000s, and in October Ad Age crowned Apple its “Marketer of the Decade.” The latest installment in a celebrated line of advertising that stretches as far back as 1984 (literally), “Get a Mac” is also largely a departure from the over-the-top production, flashy aesthetics, and A-list celebrities of previous Apple campaigns. Two guys, a white backdrop, a meandering jingle, and a punch line are all it usually took for these ads to pitch Mac as…well…the thing to be.
And why wouldn’t we want to be Mac? Both financially and symbolically, Apple’s resurgence over the past decade has carried the company into the elite class of the tech world. Interbrand ranks Apple as the 17th most valuable brand in the world in 2010—and the fastest growing1 —while Vitrue, a social media management firm, ranks six Apple brands, including Macintosh, among “the most social in the world.”2 Back in 1984, first generation Macs popularized the graphical user interface (GUI) that dominates screens of all sizes today, as well as the mouse, both of which made the Mac an early favorite of the art and design industries and a hip symbol of the creative ethic. Partnerships with educational institutions helped Mac (and Apple) weather the PC-dominated mid-to-late 1990s, while at the same time adding an air of youth and imagination to the brand. Apple has since grown notorious for their products’ closed platforms, frustrating software developers but defining an exclusive, discriminating reputation for themselves. The “Get a Mac” campaign cleverly leverages this reputation into a simple narrative that emphasizes the social and youthful, yet seemingly classless nature of Mac and the real-world users he represents.
But obscured in the sterile-white world of “Get a Mac” are indeed messages of consumption and class, though ones artfully subjugated by a comparative advertising trope we have become used to in the U.S. Our society, historically prone to denying very real issues of social class that are perpetuated in the consumer culture, reads a text like this as an invitation to switch teams, to make life easier, to be a little bit cooler, to enter the “In” crowd. “Get a Mac” appeals to our youthful, globalized, and hybridized post-industrial selves who would prefer to think that conflicts around class, race, and gender were completely conquered in the 1960s and 70s. The myth employed in these ads tells us it is easy and straightforward to be this person—to become Mac; it’s a myth that supports the dominant “classless-society” thesis and hides the real societal hurdles that such a personal movement would have to navigate.
Thinking about mass media texts as creators and carriers of myth was perhaps most notably popularized by Roland Barthes, who felt that myths naturalize and depoliticize the facts embodied in the stories we tell ourselves. He writes in Mythologies: “Myth does not deny things, on the contrary, its function is to talk about them; simply, it purifies them, it makes them innocent, it gives them a natural and eternal justification, it gives them a clarity which is not that of an explanation but that of a statement of fact.”3 In the dominant digital discourse of the past decade and a half, the speed, ease, and social penetration of information technologies have opened up myths around the end of history, the end of geography, and the end of politics.4 These myths argue that the equalizing and democratizing force of the Internet will end boundaries to access and participation that are persistent and problematic in the analog world. Seizing on the spirit of this discourse and playing off of its basic goal, Apple offers the characteratured dichotomy of “Get a Mac” as an argument for the end of consumer class divides, an end attained by the ultimate ability to connect with everyone.
Mac is our role model in this ascent to the end of class, floating through the post-industrial world eternally laid-back, naturally creative, and rarely compelled to work (though dressed to the nines when the occasion arises). He effortlessly communicates with both humans and other technology, confident in his own skin (or should we say case?) and free from worries of illness (viruses), life changes (OS upgrades), or information overload (multi-tasking). Justin Long’s Mac is enabled by the fact that he doesn’t really have to “work” at anything, even work; he lives the life of leisure enabled by advanced technology.
His counterpart in the 66 television spots and 12 banner ads produced for the U.S. campaign is John Hodgman’s PC, the drab-clothed, overweight, lower-to-middle management archetype who is clearly awkward outside the work context (and we can easily file his efforts at shameless self-promotion, the dominant folly in many of the spots, as work for him). PC is defined by work and feels entirely uncomfortable, inadequate, or oblivious when dealing with the social and familial aspects of life, as we see in spots like “Work vs. Home” and “Meant for Work.” PC taps into our fears of what middle-class really means for the American psyche, but “Get a Mac” is careful to only approach these feelings through a comical stereotype, allowing us to view the anger, resentment, and depression of this class position from a distance with a chuckle. These fears are then assuaged by the presence of Mac, offered not with the baggage of a stereotype but with the promise of an ideal and the path of escape from our complicated lives.
As we see in these spots, issues of gender, race, and age are generally avoided in the Mac vs. PC comparison with the casting of Long and Hodgman, thus preempting some of media studies’ most often used lines of critique. These similarities serve to mask questions of class, but as we saw, these questions become evident in a closer examination of the characters’ attitudes toward themselves and work. Consumer culture’s answer to this question of attitude? Look the part, and the rest will surely follow (designer blog LifeClever has broken down for us):
“Get a Mac” has inspired a bevy of parodies both in the mainstream media (David Letterman produced a number of spoofs for The Late Show starring comedian Chris Elliott) and on the Internet, with some of the latter efforts garnering YouTube view-counts in the millions. And while some of these Web parodies are produced by institutional authors with a stake in the Apple/Microsoft battle for market-share (specifically, the Novell Linux series that promotes an open-source solution to the OS wars), most seem to be authentically homemade efforts to subvert the corporate campaign’s message. These videos are often sharply critical of Apple’s self presentation in the original ads. “I hate MAC ads” features an animated Mac claiming “I’m better ‘cause I’m shinier,” while the South Park-themed series of spoofs depict a less-than magnanimous Mac heckling PC and sending him a virus. Collectively, these parodies attempt to bring Mac down from the mythic ideal that is portrayed in “Get a Mac,” humanizing him with a range of emotions and depicting him in true conflicts that arise from such interpersonal encounters of rivalry.
Both professionally and culturally, “Get a Mac” has made a mark on the Western media landscape, and the simplicity of its form just seems to lend itself to imitation. A recent web story even linked the campaign to a Washington intelligence meeting, where the characters were used to explain the personalities of two al-Qaida members.5 The ads’ catchiness is undeniable, which, like any advertising or public relations message, makes the implications of its meaning that much more significant (and in this case, dubious). The myth of “Get a Mac” reveals to us that anyone can be a Mac, and in doing so, transcend the material and cultural barriers of class, while at the same time it conceals in its humor the very real “work” (used both literally and figuratively) that makes up these barriers. Microsoft’s response campaign “I’m a PC” challenges the missing humanity in the Apple ads, but offers its own myth on the real-world versatility and accessibility of its product. As such, it is important that we consider the myth-busting efforts of those who are resistant to the ubiquitous messages of consumer culture and offer their own comedy as a means to negotiate the stories we are sold in lifestyle advertising.
Kelvin Ho said:
Reading the article reminded me of Joseph Turow’s theory on segment-making media, where it is encouraging “small slices of society to talk to themselves.” Turow believes that the United States is shifting, or has already shifted, away from society-making media – which enables different segments to converse with one another – as advertisers are targeting and entering into people’s private space. Through this infiltration, advertisers are aiming towards people’s “lifestyle” with specific products. Turow essentially argues that we will all be living in our private constructed world as this categorical diversity will limit overlap and interaction between people from one segment to another.
Randall Livingstone’s assessment on Apple’s “Get a Mac” ad reveals how this campaign is targeting our lifestyle by fusing leisure and work together. Go buy an iPad or a Macbook because not only will you be constructive, you will have fun and relaxation doing it. This targeting towards the consumer’s leisure and working lifestyle is quite a paradox because while it is segmenting society – PC versus Mac – it is also masking it in more society-making terms. In other words, it is segmenting consumers by emphasizing “the social and youthful” and the “seemingly classless nature of Mac and the real-world users.” It is segmenting consumers by stripping us away from reality, where PC represents our fears of what middle-class really means in America, and situating us in an imaginary one, where Macs offer a naïve misconception about America as being race-less, classless and genderless. Hence, it is hardly surprising that Apple is distinct not only for its simplistic design of its gadgets and programs, but also for its colors. It is either black or white. There are the occasional variety in colors in cases and “socks” but it is all meticulous designed to fit neatly and categorically in their line of clean and neat products. In a society where race, class, and gender are a non-issue, diversity and multiplicity are thus nonexistent. We are all united as people through consumerism. However, this only rings true if we choose to become Mac people. Anything outside of this realm is not a real lifestyle. Life is messy, unless you live with a Mac.
-April 21st, 2011 at 4:48 am
Tia Michelle Wiliams said:
Lifestyle advertising relies on myths in order to sell a bill of goods. No one product will supply the overall lifestyle it professes. If this were the case, then all mac users would be relatively good looking, marginally charismatic, arguably witty, brunette, white men with questionable senses of fashion. The product is an add on to the list of goods we buy in hopes of reaching the level of status (whether it be: cool, rebel) lifestyle brands suggest their products provide.
I think we all learn quickly, perhaps at sandbox age, that you can’t buy love, and more simply, you can’t buy class. And thus, these advertisements definitely appeal to the very young child in us that feels we can literally become the image on the television screen when we purchase a product, but I imagine, that on some level, these ads are futile. Those of us with the means to buy into the lifestyle are adults and well aware that the item we intend to purchase will just be another item on our shelves which once fulfilled our needs to be needed, to seem cool, to seem smart, to seem as apart of the lifestyle the product professes to provide. But then, we will soon be on to the next item. We’re in constant search of the next piece to add greater authenticity to the lifestyle we’re intending to buy, and yet on some level I think we all know we’ll never really own that lifestyle.
I appreciate this article. I agree that pitting two white men with the only heavily politicized distinction between them being age is a wise way to get us to ignore what’s really separating us all and perhaps what’s lazy about advertising and wrong about capitalism. Well done!
-April 21st, 2011 at 5:52 pm
Brad Crowe said:
What a terrific article! Apple certainly has dominated over the last 10 years with these types of ‘generic’ ads that seem to target everyone. However, you mention that within these ads “issues of gender…are generally avoided” and I’m not sure that is the case. It is important to note that women are nowhere to be seen in these ads, yet they are targeted by Apple at the same time. According to Katy Kelleher’s “Are Apple Products Secretly Girly?” women are responsibly for nearly 80% of all consumer purchases “and in the ‘male’ industry of electronics, women buy almost half.” The Apple brand is especially appealing to women with their trendy stores, stylish and elegant products, and focus on ease of use (because stereotypes tell us that women apparently can’t commandeer complex technological gadgets). I argue that by not including women in their ads, they are specifically using gender as a way to appeal to women in particular.
The “I’m a Mac” ads almost seem to function as dating videos. The contestants address the viewer directly and tell the audience about their hobbies, habits, and lifestyle. Justin Long, representing Apple, is obviously more of a celebrity (not to mention an actor in multiple romantic comedies). Even thought he is dressed down, Justin is trendier, more hip, and comfortable in the spotlight. When they suit up, Justin clearly gets the better ensemble and at the end of the day, Justin’s personality shines through in his humor. It’s not a real stretch to think of who would win the date if this was match.com. Neurotic, bumbling and self deprecation only wins you points in a Woody Allen movie.
Another Mac ad to look at is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KNnX6XRQBec, where our favorite Mac and PC reps spar over the production of home movies on their respective brands. Apparently, if you’re on a Mac, you’re home video looks like Gisele Bundchen and if you’re on a PC, you get a guy dressed in drag. Gisele is someone whom many women look to as the embodiment of female perfection. If Justin Long can ‘create’ something that looks like her, you must be in good hands if you choose Apple. In a sense, if you buy Apple, you can be her (or at least ‘create’ her).
Obviously, these are vast generalities and I am not claiming to represent women as a whole, but when we are deconstructing the myth of Apple’s very intelligent marketing strategies, it is important to note that while they may seem to be staying away from issues like gender, etc. they may not be avoiding them at all. Instead, they may just be slipping the issues past the viewer without them even noticing. Now that is clever advertising.
-April 21st, 2011 at 7:19 pm
Nick Lazo said:
The idea that anyone can purchase a place in a higher social class is not a new one, and it is this idea that finds a place at the center of the “Get a Mac” campaign. The advertisements may indeed strive to eliminate previous ideas of class and class boundaries, but, as Livingstone outlines, those intentions are quickly negated by the characterizations of both Mac and PC.
The creative working class of Mac users, which have been helping the Mac brand to flourish for decades now, is presented in these advertisements as laid back, relaxed and fun, as people who don’t take life too seriously. And why would you want to take life seriously when you could have the amazing success a Mac will afford you? Livingstone’s description of the “elite class of the tech world” is exactly what the “Get a Mac” campaign is about.
The reality of the “elite class,” however, is that not everyone can reach it. The Mac campaign may suggest a level playing field, but Livingstone’s argument is clear and sound: The youthful, carefree image of Mac is one of a higher class, an elite class, that some of us will never achieve.
-April 24th, 2011 at 5:01 pm
This flow raises some interesting elements in the “Get a Mac” campaign and stimulates thoughts from my own personal relationship with Mac. I do agree with the campaign being on top of the advertising world and being named “Marketer of the Decade.” The ads were clever, funny and simple. Whenever one would come on the television I would get excited at what new skit they were going to come up with. I switched from a PC to a Mac in November of 2006. I bought a Mac Book Pro laptop. I had made the switch because my Dell started to overheat and shut off after two and a half years. I was tired of it running so slow and having to deal with updating my antivirus program. My parents had owned a Mac back in the early 90’s and I remember that computer being tough as nails and lasting many years. So I thought my Mac Book Pro would do the same. Livingstone states, “He effortlessly communicates with both humans and other technology, confident in his own skin (or should we say case?) and free from worries of illness (viruses), life changes (OS upgrades), or information overload (multi-tasking). Believe it or not but Mac cannot communicate with other Apple products unless they are on the same operating system. So if your Mac is more than 4 years old like mine then it is useless to anything that comes out from Apple from now on. How do I know this? Well I just purchased an Ipad and the gentleman at the Mac Store told me that my Mac, which is not even 5 years old yet, is too old too communicate and sync anything with my Ipad. I would need to pay to upgrade. Sure I would love to upgrade my computer but what is holding me back is that my Mac Book Pro is about to fall apart. The CD/DVD-Rom stopped burning two years ago, my battery is shot so I always have to stay plugged in, and my fan makes a funny noise when my computer has been on too long. The gentleman then told me that it is typical for my computer to do that and I should be looking to buy a new computer every three years. I could not believe it. I fell victim to the sexiness and curb appeal of a Mac. Will I continue to buy Mac computers? Yes I will because I do still feel like they are better than PCs and they are more compatible in my line of work.
I do not totally agree with the statement, “Apple offers the characteratured dichotomy of “Get a Mac” as an argument for the end of consumer class divides, an end attained by the ultimate ability to connect with everyone,” but it does have some truth to it. There is an automatic divide because some consumers are so anti-Macintosh because it is so publicized and sought over. Those consumers refuse to ever own a Macintosh because they don’t want to be known as following the popular trend. They think that Macs are overrated and over priced. But if those consumers were persuaded and everyone owned Macs then yes there would be an end to class divide. So the statement about Mac being a role model to end class is completely true and I do agree with it. I just converted my mother to a Macintosh last year, so it is possible.
-April 24th, 2011 at 7:16 pm
Jessica Richey said:
One of the interesting aspects of ‘Buy a Mac’ is how effectively the advertisements slide into ‘buy a plain hoodie (t-shirt, canvas shoes, etc.)’. Not only does the Mac computer cater to techno needs and aspirations of youthful elites, but also constructs visions of their lifestyles. Yet Mac’s clean, simple, effortlessness underscores how stark the contrast is between real life and life as it is advertised by Mac. As Livingstone notes, its doesn’t appear that Justin Long’s Mac has to work at anything because he lives and computes with such ease. This image of Mac as having attained an effortless state of leisure belies the high cost of affording this lifestyle. Unfortunately, even though Mac is post-industrial, post-class, and even post-work, the purchasing public is not. Though most of us might identify with the aesthetic logic of the ads and lifestyle they promote, paying for it is another matter. So regardless of whether class markers are erased from advertisements, the price tags for these products remain class-distinctive.
-April 25th, 2011 at 2:55 am
Jinhae Park said:
it is very interesting article. This reminds me of my undergrad when I was studying advertising, subscribing all these ad-related newspapers.
I watched all these Mac ads, and very much enjoyed because it was just so funny to watch how they placed stereotypes for each products, and as a PC user, I couldn’t agree more about illness, life changes, and information overload, and an agent(!) which you didn’t mention in the article, indicating every single warning message from windows that you need to approve and say yes when you try to get things done. I strongly agree that the “Get A Mac” advertisement is such a good campaign. It is very simple, delivers its message very straightforwardly, and entertaining for both Mac and PC user.
However, even though I enjoyed the ad and made fun of PC while I was using PC, I didn’t switch Mac. First of all, because of apple’s closed platforms, it is not compatible with most of games and foreign websites. And for weird reason, the message of this campaign, ‘It is simple to use, no need to connect all these black cables, it is the product that you need if you want to be cool,’ is somehow correlated in my mind with the scene from Legally Blonde when Reese Witherspoon, supposed to be the girlest person in the planet in a very stupid and funny way, bought a Mac and she was the only person who had Mac in the classroom at Harvard university, which at the point made me think that Mac is not for people who look for advanced technology, but more for people who cannot utilize it, but rather want to have fun with it. So I do get the part that they were selling this myth “high social, elite class,” but it never really work for me.
…Though I have to say that I bought MacBook Pro last month because it was way cheaper than VAIO that I’ve been royal to for a long time, with the same or better specifications, and it was “cuter”, and is not compatible with games still but can make windows bootcamp and also is compatible with softwares I need to use to make films.….and so far I like this change…
-April 25th, 2011 at 4:39 am
freddy gaitan said:
The “Get a Mac” campaign created the impression that by merely looking a certain way you don’t have to work hard and be boring. The ads sold the idea that by looking the part of the cool hipster, creative with hoodie, t-shirt and distressed jeans the rest of the middle/upper class lifestyle would follow. Like the people used in the campaigns, the computers were cooler, lighter, and colorful, they could not be tied down. The myth emphasizes the analog world of our parents and the new freedom and creativity that the digital age had bestowed upon us. This new generation of users and computers were suave, creative, relaxed and protected from the danger of “rat race pc user.” There is a mythical ideal of what it meas to be “mac” which gives it’s user access to all of the latest movies, music, pod casts while PC has it’s own version of fun things, time sheets, spreadsheets and pie charts.
The adds were effective. It became a goal of mine, and millions of others, to purchase the $1200 laptop as opposed to the $400 PC. We were willing to pay much more for the same amount of hard drive space, ram. I was convinced that owning a mac was exactly what I needed to begin all of my creative endeavours, and I was willing to pay $800 dollars more for the sense of “cool”. I was afraid of being like the old generation working in data entry or tedius cubicle in corporate America. What the Mac ads were so successful in doing was creating the illusion that play could be work. Work could be filled with passion, creativity, videos, music, pictures and dynamic presentations. While the PC still represented what life was like for most of America in the “typical” boring 9-5 job. I don’t know how often I hear people say I got into this business because I’m not the 9 to 5 type. Who is? The truth is that these creative jobs are just as demanding and may even be 9 to 9 jobs, many of them still selling widgets and services to the masses, but hopefully it’s through a Mac, and not a PC.
-April 25th, 2011 at 10:06 am
Ritvik Mayank said:
Livingstone starts by noting that Apple has decided to take it’s celebrated and often parodied “Get a Mac” campaign off the air after four years, with sixty-six televised advertisement and countless more on the internet itself shows the overall success is both youth and class driven. As Livingstone points out, in the myth-making dynamic of contemporary ads, Apple promotes a lifestyle by juxtaposing the dour, straight laced “Windows” character with that of the carefree casual “Mac” lifestyle, as portrayed by Justin Long. “Mac” is aspiration in that he doesn’t work, and is in fact in a post-industrial scheme a hipster that is naturally creative and is unaffected by the 9-5 middle aged lifestyle of the salary worker “Windows.”
Most intriguing was the mode of dress image as the Life Clever blog’s consumerist breakdown of the “Mac”’s wardrobe which costs significantly less than Windows’s suit, the irony being that Apple’s significantly higher price point than an average PC. Regardless, to purchase this product is to be in the group, a rarified place of cool for any product line. However effective the ease of lifestyle Apple seeks to represent, and a bevy of criticisms from the very grassroots culture of consumers, internet and television parody the perception, which I believe is telling of a backlash to lifestyle branding. Livingstone’s theory on the de-humanizing aspect being reinforced by the start white background also sets up how Windows attempted to counter the success of the binary by launching their own campaign of “I’m a PC.”
-May 3rd, 2011 at 3:36 am
Please feel free to comment.
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