One guy is nerdish and buttoned down. The other guy is laid back and casual. One is "uncool," the other is "cool." Yes, I'm talking about the televised debates between Mr. PC (over there on the left, in the ill-fitting suit) and Mr. Mac. (Watch one here; click "refresh" to watch others.)
But Mac and PC aren't the only mismatched duo in BrandWorld right now. In fact, odd (male) couples are the current sweethearts of the advertising rodeo.
- Fujitsu's campaign for the ScanSnap color scanner ("Eliminate Paper. Liberate Your Cool") depicts an uptight-looking guy in a suit behind a stack of paper who's raising an eyebrow at the tousle-haired, flamboyantly shirted, pendant-bedecked--and paper-free--guy to his left. The same actor appears to be playing both roles.
- Toshiba's promotion for something called e-BRIDGE technology doesn't make us choose between stereotypes; in fact, it's called "Let the Harmony Begin." Finance and IT, CFO and CIO--hey, can't we all get along? Nice try, but I find the hand-holding couples deeply creepy, especially no-neck "Vince" and geeky "Blake," who look like they met through CellBlockMatch.com.
- The Mac/PC dichotomy has even found its way to Japanese TV. Even if you don't understand Japanese (I don't), the archetypes require no translation. Once again, the uptight guy is the one who catches the virus. For another take, watch this very funny (subtitled) spoof. (Hat tip to Lost Remote TV Blog.)
- Citibank's new commercials feature a boorish, garrulous Eastern European named Roman ("I earn rewards points crazy-fast!" "Rewarding! Very, very, very rewarding!"), who wears Cold War-era leisure suits; and his much younger and more taciturn sidekick Victor, who wears bicycle gloves. Listen to an ad here and catch Slate.com ad critic Seth Stevenson's astute observation that Roman owes a lot of his shtick to Saturday Night Live's "two wild and crazy guys" of the mid-1970s--not to mention Borat. Unlike the other ads of this ilk, Citibank's aren't really about choosing sides. But they do juxtapose two guys with strikingly different personalities who nevertheless function as a weird unit. (How do they fit into the bank's long-running "Live Richly" campaign, with its Zen-koan-like slogans? Haven't a clue.)
What's up with all the at-odds couples? My theory is it's the cumulative effect of decades of formulaic buddy movies starring one (1) disheveled, trash-talking loose cannon and one (1) neatly dressed, tightly wound perfectionist. Fill in the blanks with Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, John Candy and Steve Martin, Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy, Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon. Invariably, the buttoned-down dude learns through painful experience to just lighten up, bro. And if it works in a 90-minute feature film or a 30-minute sitcom, it can be even more effective (and more simplistic) in a 30-second commercial.
And yet I'm bothered by all the Two Guys ads. Here's why:
- They can backfire. Despite his bad haircut, or maybe because of it, Mr. PC has become far more popular than Mr. Mac, no doubt because PC is played by John Hodgman, a much better (and funnier) actor than Justin "Mac" Long. When "cool" becomes self-conscious, it isn't cool anymore.
- They don't tell us anything important about what they're selling. "Buy me and look cool" works when you're selling sunglasses, but it's an iffier proposition when you're asking customers to make, say, a technology investment.
- Or they tell us something untrue for the sake of maintaining the fiction of antagonism. Like, for example, "PCs are only good for spreadsheets and pie charts, not for fun cool stuff." Balderdash.
- They've become a cliché. Two guys arguing. Two guys holding hands. Two guys one-upping each other. Enough with the two guys already.
And, although it feels like belaboring the obvious...
- They ignore 51 percent of the population. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the guys in all those Two Guys ads are guys. (Okay, there's one woman in the Toshiba campaign. Predictably, she's a buttoned-down, suit-wearing bean counter ... smiling broadly, so no one feels, you know, threatened.)
On this last point, really, I'm puzzled. I thought we'd moved on. Remember funny-adorable Ellen Feiss? She became a minor celebrity after starring in one of Apple's first "switch" ads back in 2002. I don't see any Ellen Feisses in technology advertising today. In fact, I can leaf through any copy of Wired magazine (yes, guys, I'm a subscriber) and draw the conclusion that women don't sell--or buy--technology. Ever. But women do buy computers and scanners and printers, just as we buy bicycles and download music and apply for credit cards. For some reason, though, a lot of ad agency guys (they're still mostly guys) aren't comfortable with that fact. Maybe they think men won't buy products and services pitched by women. Or maybe they're uncomfortable with the idea of creating humorous female spokespersons--never know when one of those angry feminists will say that's not funny.
So here's my modest but radical suggestion for Apple, Toshiba, Fujitsu, and all the others: take a commercial break from Two Guys. Take a look instead at Ellen DeGeneres's campaign for American Express to see how women can anchor funny, memorable advertising that doesn't force viewers to choose a stereotype with which to identify.
And how about this: why not hire some women to create and populate your advertising? Instead of lampooning differences and pitting Boy Versus Boy, we might actually--to borrow a slogan--think different.