TECHSPLOITATION A Barack Obama fan, supposedly operating on his own time and not as part of the campaign, recently released a rather clumsy attack ad smearing Hilary Clinton on YouTube. No, it’s not particularly amazing that spin-doc wannabes are splattering DIY attack ads on video-sharing networks. What’s surprising is the content of this particular ad, which rips off an old Macintosh commercial from the 1980s. The message? Vote Obama because he’s just like an Apple computer.
The ad is a mashup of Apple’s infamous Big Brother commercial that aired just once, during the 1984 Super Bowl. Directed by Ridley Scott (Blade Runner), it depicts a black-and-white world of industrial hell where only Macs can save us from fascism. Slack-jawed office slaves file into an auditorium where Big Brother delivers a garbled speech from an immense television screen. Just when the grimness gets overwhelming, a woman appears in bright red shorts and a Macintosh T-shirt. She runs through the auditorium in slow motion, wielding a sledgehammer, fleeing police. As Big Brother’s speech reaches a crescendo, she hurls her hammer into the screen and shatters it. A few words scroll into view over the storm of glass dust: "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984.’ "
The only difference between the Obama ad and the old Mac commercial is that Hilary Clinton has been pasted into Big Brother’s place on screen. She’s droning out some speech about everybody working together, and the final words on screen read, "On January 14, the Democratic Primary will begin. And you’ll see why 2008 won’t be like ‘1984.’ "
I’m weirded out by the idea that it’s meaningful to compare the Democratic primary to the release of a new technological gizmo. Are we really supposed to feel stirred by the notion that our political leaders are computers designed by marketers? Or that the only symbol the grassroots politicos can come up with to represent their candidate of choice is a computer that’s been obsolete for 20 years? How, exactly, did we wind up with such impoverished political imaginations?
The fact is we didn’t. Macintoshes are just the latest pop culture symbol that politicians have seized on to fake their connection to everyday American life. Hell, even Ben Franklin pulled the old pop culture trick when he plopped a coonskin hat on his head so that he’d look folksy when he arrived in France to round up some cash to fund the Revolutionary War. Two centuries later, Bill Clinton used the Fleetwood Mac song "Don’t Stop Thinking about Tomorrow" to symbolize his hipness when he was inaugurated. Obama’s supporters are using hippie computers instead of hippie rock to make the same point. Think about it: Apple computers of the ’80s represent a hopefulness about the power of technology to bring us together that the country has all but forgotten. Sort of the way we forgot about prog rock.
But do Apple computers represent what they used to back in the day? Not if you are keeping up with the times. Over the past few months, in fact, Apple has launched its own series of attack ads on the Windows PC. You know the ads I mean the ones where the Macintosh is personified as a snotty, black-clad hipster type who goes around feeling sorry for the PC, a bumbling, nerdy guy in a suit who can never quite get his peripherals to work.
Unfortunately for Apple, the attack ads have backfired. The PC character is played by John Hodgman, a popular satirist who appears regularly on The Daily Show and This American Life. His PC comes across as a populist everyman being unfairly taunted by a younger, cuter model with lots of nice hair but no brains. Everybody wants Hodgman in the living room, even if he crashes occasionally. He’s us. He’s America. The only person who wants that annoying Mac guy around is, well, the sort of person who thinks it’s brilliant to change one tiny aspect of an old TV commercial and rebroadcast it online as if it’s the new citizen media taking on the political system. If Obama is the Mac, then I’m voting PC. No, wait, I’m buying a PC! Oh crap am I at the store or in a voting booth? It’s so hard to tell the difference. *
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who figures all the voting machines are rigged to vote for the Zune anyway.