Selling the Mac

Don’t be too proud of this technological terror you’ve created.

Last night, Apple unleashed some new TV ads for the Mac. Thanks to my TiVo, I missed them on the actual TV, but Apple’s got them on its web site as well. These ads are part of a new "Get a Mac" ad campaign that’s reminiscent of the now-defunct “Switch” campaign from a few years ago. In fact, the old Switch URL now redirects to the Get a Mac section of Apple’s web site.

Back when the Switch campaign was launched, Apple was in the very early stages of its latest push for market share. The fundamental message of the Switch campaign was simple. “There exists a personal computer called Macintosh. It’s made by Apple, and it’s a viable alternative to the Windows PC.” Everything else was window dressing. Apple simply needed to get into the game. Awareness is the the biggest hurdle any challenger to an established market leader must overcome, and Apple is no exception.

The new ads still have some work to do on the awareness front, and the success of the iPod has complicated matters somewhat. Most people are now aware of Apple as a successful, viable company, but only through association with the iPod. I’ve heard people who pine for an iPod express surprise about the mere existence of Macs. “Apple still makes those? Does anyone use them?”

On the bright side, the iPod can now be used as a powerful lever. Witness the new ad titled "iLife." It uses familiarity with iTunes and the iPod to pre-sell the rest of the iLife suite. This is a great idea. The iPod and iTunes are often the first “cutting-edge” computer peripherals that a non-technical consumer has purchased and then used successfully.

Apple promises further success in other areas that non-geeks consider too daunting: publishing digital photos to the web, making home movies and DVDs, and so on. This is all old hat to Mac users and other technophiles. But for the common person who’s totally unaware of the Mac and has never even considered attempting these things on a Windows PC—but who has used an iPod—this is an effective sales pitch. “You were successful once with the iPod. Get a Mac and you’ll be successful again.”

So the “awareness” needle has moved a bit. The Mac is presented not just as a “viable” alternative, but as a better alternative. Even if the consumer is not convinced of this, the ads still have an effect. Apple sells the benefit; the consumer doubts, but still lands safely on “viable alternative.”

Apple appears very confident that it can close the deal if consumers will give the Mac a chance. Come to an Apple store, be dazzled, and then (if everything goes according to plan) swallow the price. This confidence in the inherent attractiveness of the Mac experience is admirable, but it’s misplaced in one particular area.

The "Viruses" ad, which touts the Mac’s immunity to Windows viruses, is extremely ill-considered. The ad is technically accurate. Macs running Mac OS X can’t catch “Windows viruses,” by definition. It’s also true that there have been many harmful Windows viruses loose on the net over the past few years, but no significant Mac OS X viruses. Relief from viruses is a legitimate benefit of the Mac, but Apple shouldn’t make it an explicit selling point.

It’s like an airline advertising that it has fewer fatal crashes than its competitors. This just isn’t done—and for good reasons. Putting aside the moral and ethical aspects, which arguably don’t apply to Apple, there are important practical considerations as well. The new “Viruses” TV ad pulls back a slingshot and holds it to Apple’s face. The backlash is inevitable.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that Mac OS X will soon suffer a plague of viruses and malware. I don’t think it will, at least not to the degree that Windows has suffered. But that’s not important. The threshold for backlash is much lower. A single, legitimate Mac virus spreading in the wild is all it’ll take to start the snowball rolling downhill. The media is already hungry for stories about Mac malware. Apple’s new ad makes this into an even bigger story. “Apple Touts Immunity, Then Gets Infected.” One virus makes that headline. The reality of the overall malware situation on Macs and PCs is irrelevant.

Maybe the backlash is worth it. It all depends on how many sales Apple can gain from the malware angle, and how many are lost due to the backlash. No matter how it turns out, I think it’s a risky move. Or maybe it’s a gutsy move—it all depends on how you look at it, I guess. But I’m sticking with “risky.” There’s no reason to go to the virus well, and many reasons not to. There are plenty of other strong selling points for the Mac, as the other Get a Mac ads demonstrate well. The “Viruses” spot is the one rotten apple in the bunch.

This article originally appeared at Ars Technica. It is reproduced here with permission.