Ken Segall: Why Steve Jobs Never Put Customers in Ads

By Andy Meek , written on July 31, 2012

From The News Desk

Apple's most recent TV commercials absolutely suck.

And while typically writing that anything Apple sucks will get you a first class ticket to trolly flame-ville, this is a rare case where a lot of the Internet seems to agree. You may have seen these ads if you've been watching the 2012 Olympics coverage; they're the ones showing a beatific Apple Store Genius helping  clueless customers. And they're surprisingly bad for a company that's usually so good at, well, most everything related to delighting and enticing customers.

Maybe they look different in the context of some other Apple clunkers, as others have noted, but I think the reader can judge for him- or herself.

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To me, the message of these spots is, “Unless you let us help you, you’ll stay stuck on stupid.” A few more like these, and the Apple that threw a hammer at a propaganda-filled movie screen to save us from 1984, and that later gave us black and white images of history makers to convince us a computer company could help us think different, will have settled for the total Best Buy-ification of its brand.

On the other hand, what do I know? I’m just a journalist, so it doesn't matter what I think of these ads. Instead, I asked Ken Segall, a former Creative Director at the ad agency Chiat/Day, who worked with Steve Jobs for more than 12 years at Apple and NeXT, and who also gives the ads a big fat “meh.”

Reached via his Facebook page, Segall shared a few thoughts with PandoDaily about the TV spots.

Since the Genius Bar is a big reason why customers flock to the Apple Stores even though they can buy the same products online, Segall does agree there are good reasons to feature the Geniuses in a series of Mac ads.

“But once you embrace that strategy, there are a thousand ways to execute it — and a great many people seem to be disappointed by the one Apple chose [for this one],” Segall said.

“For one thing, Apple has chosen to fashion each commercial as a sitcom. There is ‘shtick’ in each one, exaggerated dialog and exaggerated characters. All that's missing is the laugh track. If this were done well, the natives might not be so restless — but overall the ads just aren't that funny. In fact, to many they are uncomfortably un-funny.”

In his new book “Insanely Simple: The Obsession That Drives Apple's Success", Segall brings up some old conversations with Jobs about featuring Apple customers in TV commercials. Back then, Jobs wanted to avoid that. Why? Because personality types are subjective. What’s annoying to one person can seem cool to someone else.

“So most of the time we featured only beauty shots of products, then (added) humanity with the scripts and voice talent,” Segall said. “Obviously, the company got much better at using human beings in its advertising since, but doing this well isn't always easy.”

In the case of the latest spots, the customers – not the technology or the high-minded ideals of the company or the amazing things the technology empowers people to do – are what’s front and center.

“Though there is a reason why they are portrayed as somewhat helpless — to show the value of the Genius — many people get turned off when asked to see [versions of] themselves in dumb characters,” Segall said. “In the Mac vs PC commercials, this issue didn't exist. They weren't real people. They represented the computers, not us. Those ads were pure entertainment, designed to illuminate the differences between platforms.

Segall continued: “Last, I think quality is an issue. And that's a bad issue when you're a company that has come to stand for quality. The new ads just don't feel up to the high Apple standards. Some have noted that they feel more like ads from Best Buy. I think this is the result of the writing, casting, acting, directing, and overall production values — areas in which Apple has always excelled. In fact, I think that's it in a nutshell: The new ads don't feel like Apple. And for as long as any of us can remember, everything Apple does has felt like Apple."