Apple's 'Get a Mac.' The Long, Strange Trip to a Comedy Classic
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They were the most lovable attack ads in history: Apple's "Get a Mac" campaign, which ran from 2006 to 2009, starring Justin Long as a personified Macintosh computer and John Hodgman as a PC. But the journey of getting there is an epic story all its own.
This week on our Tagline podcast, we revisit the entire history of "Get a Mac" with those who worked on it—from the brutal eight-month search for the idea through its demise four years later, when it was named Campaign of the Decade by Adweek.
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Apple 'Get a Mac'
Tagline podcast transcript
TIM NUDD: On May 2, 2006, Apple rolled out new TV spots that introduced the world to a comic duo whose strained yet affectionate relationship would amuse viewers for the next four years.
TIM NUDD: The campaign, called "Get a Mac," was breezy and charming, and seemed effortless: Justin Long and John Hodgman, standing in front of a white cyc, amusingly comparing Macs and PCs by personifying the two. Their comedy act would soon become famous, and finally raise Mac from a footnote to a force in the PC market. But behind the scenes, the campaign's development had been anything but smooth. And our story begins a full eight months earlier, in September 2005, when Steve Jobs—who'd returned to Apple in '97 and was riding a wave of staggering success with iPod and iTunes—asked his agency, TBWA\Chiat\Day, for a new Mac campaign. Little did anyone know at the time just how excruciating that journey would be.
LEE CLOW: As we've talked about before, Tim, this was an amazing relationship. When Steve came back to Apple, he met with the advertising people every week. Every week, he wanted to see ideas. How are we going to save Apple? How are we going to get back in business? So every week, we were there with ideas.
TIM NUDD: Lee Clow was Chiat\Day's global creative chief. He and Jobs had made legendary ads together going back to the '80s—the Super Bowl spot "1984," and more recent classics like "Think Different" and iPod "Silhouettes." But rejuvenating Mac—which was languishing, 20 years after its debut, at just 3 percent market share—would be as difficult as anything they'd done before.
LEE CLOW: When Steve got back, Mac was nothing. But Windows had taken over the world. So the idea to get people back to Mac was a pretty herculean challenge. That's what his challenge was, is, let's go after Windows and figure out how we can get people to understand that Mac is better.
TIM NUDD: This would be easier said than done. James Vincent was managing director of Chiat L.A. Though his more informal title was chief Steve handler.
JAMES VINCENT: And in typical Steve fashion, he laid down the gauntlet with the following statement. He said, "I don't want to do 3 percent market share. We should just pack up and go home. I want 90 percent market share." Now, if you'd spent time with Steve, those kinds of things sort of came along on at a fairly regular clip. Now it turns out, of course, they currently have 90 percent market share—of computers over $1,000. And so what he was saying was, "I want the high. I want the top, and the top should grow."
TIM NUDD: Apple had tried lots of things for Mac over the years. The "Switchers" campaign from Errol Morris. Ads with Jeff Goldblum before that. None of it had really moved the needle. The monolith of PCs seemed insurmountable.
JAMES VINCENT: And I think the problem strategically was, people just thought computers were kind of rubbish. "You know what? Computers aren't that great and they're never going to be that great. They're kind of ugly and don't work very well."
TIM NUDD: The planners at the agency were hard at work digging into Mac's problems. Duncan Milner, then chief creative officer of Chiat L.A., recalls one strategic insight in particular that helped unlock things a bit.
DUNCAN MILNER: And it was really Elena Hale, who was the head strategy person on Apple at the time. She sort of said, "PC users don't know what they don't know." Whatever we come up with is going to have to tell them that there is a better—or show them that there's a better experience out there. That the one they're familiar with and they've become comfortable with doesn't have to be that way.
TIM NUDD: Still, the agency struggled to find a creative way to express this. Every Wednesday morning, Lee, James, Duncan and a few others would fly up to Cupertino to meet with Jobs. And every Wednesday night, they'd fly back to L.A., with all their ideas rejected. As the months went by, both sides began to get frustrated, and the pressure grew intense. At one of these meetings, Jobs grabbed his laptop and pulled up a scene from the movie Walk the Line, which had just come out, the one where Sam Phillips is staring down Johnnie Cash and telling him play the "one song" that might save him. It was lost on no one in the room that Jobs wanted similar salvation for Mac.
DUNCAN MILNER: And Steve said, "That's what I want. That's what we're looking for." And I was like, "Right." [laughter] But I actually went back to the team and was like, "This happened in the meeting. And this is what we're looking for here." I don't know if it helped or if people walked away going, "What, are you crazy?" But people were getting pretty frustrated because we brought up some pretty good ideas that probably any other client would have bought. But Steve was just nope, nope, nope.
TIM NUDD: Early on, Jobs thought a single ad might work—another "1984" or "Here's to the Crazy Ones." But the nature of Mac's problems suggested otherwise.
JAMES VINCENT: When we wrote down the list of things that it was better at, I think it was like 27 points. "Oh, it's better at this, and better at that, and better at this." And Steve wants a campaign. Well, it's not an ad, right? It's not one ad. We have to create an episodic idea that can go from issue to issue to issue. It needs to build and build and build and build, until at some point you're just like, "All right, I get it! You're better!" And "worth it" better.
TIM NUDD: One idea finally did get some traction with Jobs. It was called "A Week With Owen," and it would feature Owen Wilson as a Mac user, living with a PC-owning family for a week and staging a kind of intervention—showing them all the ways their computer was terrible. The idea came from copywriter Jason Sperling and art director Jamie Reilly. To Jason, it felt like a breakthrough.
JASON SPERLING: And I read that script, and Lee Clow exploded in laughter, and absolutely loved it. I remember going back to my workstation, which was underneath the stairs. And he comes over afterwards, and he's like, "Do this and do this and here's my number," and blah, blah, blah, and so from that point on, he didn't know my name, but he referred to me as the Funny Guy. And so that was the moniker I wore for a while.
TIM NUDD: In the end, though, Owen Wilson declined—as did Ben Stiller, Will Ferrell and John Cusack. So they were back at square one. Increasingly desperate, Chiat at this point threw everything it had at the problem—bringing more teams into the project, including a bunch of A-list freelancers.
JASON SPERLING: It was The Empire Strikes Back where they bring in all the bounty hunters to go get Han Solo, and they brought in all these freelancers that were legend to me. They brought in all the top creatives from Chiat, and then us, poor tired souls, who'd spent six months just churning and burning on this thing that were at our wit's end.
TIM NUDD: Scott Trattner, an art director in the group paired with the writer Barton Corley, recalls it being just a surreal time.
SCOTT TRATTNER: All these rogue senior Wieden teams were coming in, like OG. They were flying in folks, just like the best of the best. You know what I mean? And Barton and I are sitting around going like, "Shit. OK, well." First of all, the process is tricky already, but now we have to compete against these folks! [laughs]
TIM NUDD: In the end, though, it was Scott who finally helped crack the code. And it began with a simple conversation he had with Eric Grunbaum, his creative director—with Scott, at the end of his rope, telling Eric just how burned out he was, how he couldn't see a way forward after so many months of failure.
SCOTT TRATTNER: And he's like this is what it is. This is the story we need to tell. We have a platform that isn't as good. We have a platform that's better. We need to tell all the ways that platform is better. And we need a story architecture that's new and inventive and totally flexible. "Pretend I'm 2 years old or 5 years old. And tell me what we need to say."
TIM NUDD: Simplifying the problem like this helped. And actually, Scott had had another small epiphany, right around this time, about the power of simple storytelling. He'd been going to see his little sister act in school plays.
SCOTT TRATTNER: And I remember at the time going and being struck how charming it was to see a child play a rock or play a tree. And just that, like, how disarming that was. So that was sort of like in the back of my head a little bit. And I just remember, after that conversation with Eric, just saying to Barton, like, maybe we just kind of need to visualize these platforms in some way. And maybe they need to speak for themselves. And one could be like, "Hello, I'm a Mac," and the other one can be like, "Hello, I'm a P.C." Kind of like the children's school thing. And then he just filled the gap in. He was just like, yeah, and this one could say like, "I'm fast, I'm this, I'm that." And then that literally just went boom.
TIM NUDD: Barton Corley, who'd been at Wieden + Kennedy Tokyo before Chiat, remembers those first scripts coming really quickly.
BARTON CORLEY: Pretty much, the two of us wrote the "Virus" script right there and then. Sitting on the steps outside Chiat. And then we went inside and we wrote five more, including one that had a printer from Japan that spoke Japanese, a little homage to my time in Tokyo.
SCOTT TRATTNER: And we presented them to Lee. And I'll never forget the look on his face. I wonder if Barton can remember this, too, was, he just smiled. And it was in a moment of high stress. He smiled and he was like, "OK, wait, read that again."
TIM NUDD: The team was excited but tried not to get their hopes up. After so many months, this was clearly a special idea—everyone felt it. But would Jobs agree? Duncan, for one, had his doubts.
DUNCAN MILNER: And our feeling was, we're now bringing these computers to life, but we're not showing the product, aside from a three-second shot at the end of the spot. And we knew that Apple's always proud of their products, and I mean, essentially everything they do is a product ad. So it just felt like, "Wow, this doesn't feel like something that Steve's going to buy," even though we loved it.
TIM NUDD: The moment of truth would come at the next Wednesday marcom meeting, where Lee and Duncan would not only present the idea—they would act it out as well.
LEE CLOW: Duncan Milner and I stood up, and I said, "Hi, I'm a Mac." And I remember Steve said, "Good choice." And Duncan said, "Hi, I'm a PC." And then we did the first script. And Steve said, "That's it. I love it. It's perfect."
TIM NUDD: With the idea approved, things moved quickly. The agency single-bid the project and hired, as director, Phil Morrison of Epoch Films, whose indie comedy Junebug had come out the previous fall. Phil was widely admired for his encyclopedic knowledge of actors, and his skill working with them. Which would be critical here, as they looked to embody the entire Apple brand in a single person, and do the same with the competition.
PHIL MORRISON: Of course, there was an immediate specialness about it because it was Apple, and Media Arts Lab, and Chiat. But none of us could see into the future that it was going to be something more than a two-day shoot. But one thing that was different about it from almost any job I've ever done, right off the bat—they were really amenable to the idea of not even scheduling a shoot date until we had found the right people. And that never happens.
TIM NUDD: Jerry Solomon was Phil's EP at Epoch. He also recalls that first meeting with Chiat being very interesting.
JERRY SOLOMON: There's no better guy with casting and directing talent than Phil. So he was the guy. And I had already mapped out some budgets and kind of got some estimates. And James basically gives us this speech about Apple. He goes on a 10-minute soliloquy about the importance of the brand and how Apple doesn't sell just computers or sell technology devices. It changes the world. And the journey we're about to embark on, it's going to change everything, and da, da, da, da. I mean it was super evangelical shit, right? [laughter] And what I recall so vividly is turning—and like I said, I had my budgets ready. And I was already doing this stuff. And he's like, "When you're changing the world, money is no expense." And I was like, "Great." And I took the budgets and I just put them back into my backpack. And I'm like, "We're done with that."
TIM NUDD: Demitri Martin was an early front-runner for the role of Mac. But in the end, they went with Justin Long, a 27-year-old up-and-comer, who was on Phil's shortlist, and who, coincidentally, Steve Jobs said he liked as well—after watching Herbie: Fully Loaded one night with his daughter. Long was "offer-only" talent by then, which meant he didn't have to audition. He was offered the role, and he accepted. For PC, Phil was drawn to a 34-year-old writer named John Hodgman, whom he'd seen on The Daily Show and felt had a special energy and wit. Hodgman did have to audition, and by all accounts brought the house down reading a script where PC is bragging about being an original blogger and hip-hopper. Hodgman even threw in some pretty impressive beatboxing. Soon, John was offered, and accepted, the role of PC. In the end, Long and Hodgman were very opposite types—the stereotypical "cool guy"/"nerdy guy"—which the team, wary of caricatures, had been trying to avoid. But they just worked. And their chemistry would be a big part of why the ads worked, too.
PHIL MORRISON: They liked each other enormously and made each other laugh. Their senses of humor were very, very, very in sync right away.
TIM NUDD: And so, on April 8, 2006, Justin Long and John Hodgman arrived on set in L.A. to film the first round of "Get a Mac," the beginning of a remarkable four-year journey. The first round of spots included "Virus," one of the true classics, and "Restarting."
TIM NUDD: From the beginning, the ads were smart, charming and funny. And very visual. But the writing wasn't easy. The whole "Mac vs. PC" thing, it turned out, was tricky. And could easily backfire if "confident and capable versus insecure and flawed" read more like "smart versus stupid"—or worse, "smug versus lovably inept." The nuances of tone would be everything. And it was Funny Guy, Jason Sperling, with his background in comedy, who would help find that tone more than anyone.
JASON SPERLING: "Charming" was definitely the watchword we used. Mac had to have some empathy. There had to be a friendship. PC had to be likable in his own way because we didn't want to represent users and insult them. But to show that this is a character who actually kind of does love Mac, but he just can't get over his jealousy of all those amazing things he can do. And it drives him so insane that he's willing to come up with these crazy ways to try and hurt him or handicap him or make himself look good. I think a lot of it comes out of just the insecurity that comes with being a slightly inferior computer. And it just manifests itself in all these funny Rocky and Bullwinkle-esque plans that never turn out the way they were intended.
LEE CLOW: This cannot be mean-spirited. It's not ambush advertising or beating the shit out of Windows. It needs to be charming, and it needs to be funny. You almost need to have a sympathy for PC that Mac just kind of does these things a little bit better.
TIM NUDD: The irony, given these were Mac ads, is that PC was clearly the better role, with Hodgman getting most of the funny lines and all the sight gags. John hadn't acted much up to this point, but he played PC perfectly—creating one of the great comic characters ever seen in advertising. Justin Long, though, struggled as Mac—understandably so. Being right all the time, being better than his friend, rattling off endless product specs. It was thankless at times, and he often grew frustrated. Here's how Phil remembers it.
PHIL MORRISON: He was always written as the straight man, right? And often, what the nature of the jokes were were sort of, like I said, passive-aggressive insults of PC, right? And so Justin was tasked with, "You're the Mac. You're the Mac. You've gotta to be so likable. But your job in this is to diss your friend." So that was by nature, very challenging, or to kind of praise himself while maintaining humility, right? Praise himself, insult his friend, stay humble—was very, very often a challenge.
JASON SPERLING: Justin Long, I think, saw himself as a comedian, a comedy actor, and he was being forced to play the straight man. And he hated it. You crossed your fingers that he was in a decent mood and was having enough fun on set to where he didn't mind just shilling, because that's essentially what it was.
TIM NUDD: Alicia Marder, a writer on the campaign later, says they always had their eye on this.
ALICIA MARDER: And I understood Justin definitely having frustration with feeling like a shill. We always would kind of have to de-smug his lines sometimes because he just would be like, "But I'm a Mac and I just always work." And it was like, "Okay." He was sensitive, rightfully so, to those lines. And so we would always kind of have to tweak that to not make him seem like an a-hole, you know?
JASON SPERLING: And so we had to find ways to say, "I have this great feature that I don't fall and end up in a wheelchair like you, but at the same time, I feel so sorry for you. How are you doing? Are you okay?" His endearment to PC, even though PC was always trying to get the best of him, made him look better in the end.
TIM NUDD: Talking to Campaign U.S. in 2016, Long and Hodgman revisited the nuances of the characters, how they moved beyond the way they were originally written:
Click to the section beginning at 23:59 in this podcast:
TIM NUDD: At the same time, Mac's little insults could be very funny. Here's a spot called "Accident," where PC is all bandaged up and sitting in a wheelchair, hogging the spotlight as usual, though it's Mac who gets in a good dig in at the end.
TIM NUDD: In the end, Long did an admirable job with the hand he was dealt.
JASON SPERLING: In terms of him representing the product, I thought he was great. I thought he had just an easygoingness that felt almost aspirational for the brand. It's just so funny to me looking back at it and seeing some of those early pictures of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and just saying, "Oh my God!" They were puppets for the two of them to have these conversations, and we were just the instigators. We were a mouthpiece for Steve to say everything he's always wanted to say to Bill Gates.
TIM NUDD: There was one last difference between the actors. Long was already well known when the campaign started; but for Hodgman, it's what made him famous. Jerry Solomon has a funny story about this—and Hodgman's talked about it, too. How he very much came to enjoy the fruits of his labor.
JERRY SOLOMON: And Justin signed his deal. He made a lot of money. John Hodgman was on triple scale. And Justin Long was made—I don't know what he made. But he was just this flat-out buy-out. And they were 12-hour days. And John Hodgman comes in there, and John was early every time. Justin Long showed up right on time, not early, not late, but never early. John Hodgman was early. He was ready to go. He didn't even sit in the director's chair. He was standing. He was ready to go. And at the end of the days, when it was a 12-hour day, inevitably the agency had new scripts or new lines or wanted to try something else out. John would be like, "I could stay for another couple of hours if you need me." Justin Long was like, "No. No, we're done in 12 and we're out. Not a minute more." Very good guy, very professional, but he expected a certain type of treatment for what he was. John did not. By the end of the first year, John was like, "I'm staying at the Chateau Marmont. I'll be bringing out my family." So it was just very interesting. And by the way, then all of a sudden, John was like, "You've got 15 minutes left, so you better get this down." But it was funny.
TIM NUDD: Along with the writing, they also had to figure out the visual language for the spots. For Scott Trattner, the starting point was Apple's longstanding aesthetic—clean, simple, minimalist. Two guys on a white cyc, and just a brief product shot at the end.
SCOTT TRATTNER: The white cyc in many ways, was a stage for Apple. And so that's how we saw it. And the process at the time, or the creative process at the time, for Apple was constantly a process of reduction and getting out of the way. Reduction, get out of the way. And to only work with the essentials. Our ambition with our advertising was to live up to how inevitable the products feel. That the advertising has that same level of inevitability, that there's nothing in the way. It's just the essentials of what you need to tell that story in a very succinct way.
TIM NUDD: For Lee Clow, the greatest art director of his generation, this all went back to the building blocks of great advertising.
LEE CLOW: My first major influence in the advertising business was Volkswagen, for whatever reason—simple and kind of, if you can do it on a white background and it can be smart and intelligent and funny, you're hitting a home run. After "1984," we showed demonstrations of what Mac can do on a white limbo. Steve just hated stuff that looked like anybody else can do it. So you put stuff into some kind of lifestyle context and it's—ah, it's bullshit. It's what Budweiser would do [laughter]. He hated stuff that kind of looked anything like what anybody else could do. So again, the simple environment lended itself to his products to be heroes, and the ideas having to be smart because you didn't have anything to back it up.
TIM NUDD: One thing that did cause some conflict early on was the lighting. Scott, Lee and Phil all remember this—that the first spots were lit more dramatically than the later ones.
SCOTT TRATTNER: The jumping-off point, aesthetic jumping-off point for this, beyond the sort of visual architecture of it, was this kind of community theater kind of thing. And so we were thinking about it as stage lighting. There's a DP we used in the beginning. At the time, he created a cutter on the light. And it was pretty amazing to watch him work. So you had these big bank lights that light cyc's, but then he had these drops that would kind of cut the light. So what it did was it created dramatic lighting on the guys. And I remember on set—again, I'm like a senior art director or something—being a little nervous about the lighting and going like, "Shit. I hope our client likes this," you know what I mean, "because this is pretty different." And I remember even going into Company 3 after we saw the spots, and what I was doing a bit, because I was unsure about it, was adjusting the lighting so that it was a little less dramatic because it was pretty extreme. It was like the top of their bodies were lit, and then it went quite, quite, quite dark. I remember that actually pissing Lee off, too. And him like going like, "Why are you fucking with that?" You know what I mean? "What are you doing?" And I was sort of like, "Lee, I thought that was the responsible thing to do." I learned such a lesson in that very singular moment—that was just Lee's leaning always was like, "Find the art where you can and don't fuck with it."
LEE CLOW: When we did the first couple of commercials, we had this really nice lighting that I loved. It was a little bit more hard, a little more drop shadow on one side. Then we got into the round-robin, doing 12 a day, and we kind of lost the subtlety of the lighting. Maybe I can't bitch about the lighting.
PHIL MORRISON: Initially, they had said that it should have its own kind of dynamic, dramatic lighting. Yeah, I thought it was cool looking, too. So sometimes you'd shoot something that it would turn out that somebody wouldn't like, like things that on other jobs might have been kind of gone through an approval process ahead of time, often the notion on this was, "Well, no. Just do it and we'll see it, and then we'll decide." The hard world of show business. I mean, the DP is—I won't name him, he's done just fine because he's brilliant—but he never got to shoot another round of the "Mac and PC" commercials again, because he did what he was told.
TIM NUDD: They also used over-the-shoulder camera angles in this first round, which they never did again. This was all about finding their way creatively—much as the writers were doing with the tone, and the actors were doing by improvising, which there was also less of later on. As Phil recalls, the whole process really was quite experimental at first, then became more conventional as time went on.
PHIL MORRISON: They were really freewheeling in the first round. We had the written scripts and they would just improvise their way in and out of the scripts. Throughout, we were always shooting three cameras: two-shot, single, single. And we always did two different two-shots: a wider two-shot and a closer two-shot, and then single, single, crossing the lens so that their eye lines were closer to the lens when they're talking to each other. We didn't cut a lot, in my recollection, we would just keep rolling and kind of throw in notes and then they would try and they just really kind of just very quickly were their characters and were comfortable. The first rounds that we shot, the process wasn't anything like other commercials. And then, it became more so as it went along. It certainly evolved in the sense that as people were coming up with more and more ideas for them, that ideas about sets would become more elaborate and guest stars. Less improvisation, more written alts. The basic thing, which is, it's these two guys on a white cyc having this relationship, obviously that never changed.
TIM NUDD: The last thing was the music, which was an original 30-second track, called "Having Trouble Sneezing," written by Mark Mothersbaugh, the frontman for Devo.
SCOTT TRATTNER: We obviously didn't want a jingle. That isn't Apple, and we looked at it. We looked at licensing music and stuff like that, but we were like—I think Rushmore had just come out. Yeah. And Mark Mothersbaugh did a lot of the music on that. And we were like, "Oh, shit. Let's just go to-- let's go to Mark Mothersbaugh." And we were all obviously like, "Fuck? Devo!"
SCOTT TRATTNER: And I think it was just a few iterations, and he got it pretty quick.
TIM NUDD: As all these elements came together, year one of "Get a Mac" turned out to be a bigger success than anyone imagined. The work completely broke through in culture and sharply boosted sales, which would soon reach 25-30 percent growth every quarter—incredible, particularly since people don't buy computers every day. The episodic thing was going so well, too, that they even did a Christmas special in December—a spot which, in classic sitcom style, revisited earlier ones from throughout the year.
TIM NUDD: The biggest endorsement of all, though, would come from Steve Jobs himself, who liked the ads so much that he began asking for custom "Mac & PC" videos to play at his product-announcement events—like this one, from 2007, with PC in jeans and a black turtleneck, pretending to be Jobs himself.
TIM NUDD: From May to December 2006, Apple aired 19 "Get a Mac" ads, an impressive total. But they produced many more—perhaps three times as many—which never aired. This was unusual, to say the least, but it was how Steve Jobs liked to work—approving spots not at the script stage but after they were finished. Partly, he just found it hard to tell, on page, if something was funny. But this was also how he worked on everything: building prototypes, iterating new versions, seeing firsthand what worked and what didn't. In this way, the ads, once again, mirrored the products. For the creatives, this could be frustrating—having spots produced, then rejected. But Barton Corley, Scott Trattner and Alicia Marder all recall great benefits to the approach as well.
BARTON CORLEY: I seem to recall Steve saying something like, "We could sit here and argue about what's funny on a piece of paper, but pieces of paper aren't funny." And, "Why don't you go make some and I'll choose?" He was smart enough to recognize the economy of, "I'll pay for a few days of shooting, and since it's just wardrobe change on white, I could do a lot of them." I think he had a great experience with Lee during "Switchers." They shot a lot during that campaign, I understand, as well.
SCOTT TRATTNER: There's hundreds—you know what I mean?—that were fully cut. And then, essentially, Steve would just choose whatever, five or something. And it was such a trusting, beautiful way of working to test the edges and to really find where you could flex. And so we could take risks with scripts. It wasn't like, "You're shooting three scripts, and they better fucking work."
ALICIA MARDER: Yes, I wanted things to get to air, but it also felt like a win when it got produced. It was a very amazing and fulfilling process in that way because I think, as creators, you just want to make stuff.
TIM NUDD: At the same time, it did make the shoots more stressful.
ALICIA MARDER: I remember friends talking about it like, "I know. Isn't it so cool being on a shoot and having craft service?" And I was like, "No. No. They're really intense. They're way more stressful because we had to solve—we had to get a script sold." The script wasn't already sold, and you weren't eating a grilled cheese with pancetta in craft service. You were sitting there, writing intensely. And if something sounded clunky, you're rewriting it. If an alt ending wasn't working, we're rewriting it. We were like throwing out lines. We would always have about three or four alt endings to every script. It was never pencils-down. It was always pencils-up.
JASON SPERLING: It was a writer's workshop. I thank God I went through that to really understand just how it all works. Because, of course, we would write, I would say, over 100 scripts per round. And when I say round I mean we would hopefully shoot anything between 15 and 20 spots, over the course of three to five days. So getting to those 20, we'd have 100 plus. Then within the ones we were shooting, we'd have multiple lines, multiple endings, multiple ways of doing it. And then on set, we'd have to be ready and reactive to change anything or to add something. Or to say, "Hey, what just happened by accident there, let's try that again." And then be critical enough to say, "This joke isn't working. Move on." My joke isn't as good as the one John Hodgman is saying so let's have him do his instead."
TIM NUDD: This was an added perk of having Hodgman, an accomplished comedy writer himself.
ALICIA MARDER: We would always be like, "Come on, John, save us. Come on, John," because we'd write a script, we'd feel like the ending, OK, is not funny enough. And John would never fail, would give us other options fully in character. And so he was a godsend. You just were constantly, "What's a funnier ending? What's a funnier ending?" And those would get shown to Steve, too. I mean, we would show—in finished spots, we'll be in edit phase for weeks, making these 20 spots with two different editors, and then you would be like, "Oh, this is a really funny ending. I love this ending." And Steve, you'd show it to him, or they would show it to him, and he would—oftentimes, he'd think one is funny, but this one's better on message. This is what I really want to say.
TIM NUDD: If a script wasn't working on set, they'd often just abandon it and move on. This willingness to change lanes actually led to one of Jason's favorite spots, called "Counselor," toward the end of year one.
JASON SPERLING: And it was Mac and PC in therapy to try and I guess help figure out the root of their problems and that was the spot that there was one that wasn't working on set, and so we decided, "Hey, we have this script—" we didn't necessarily approve it. The director has this woman he's worked with in the past, he called her up, she shows up 20 minutes later and is in makeup, and we just run through this spot because we don't want to sacrifice the afternoon with this other thing that wasn't working. By sheer luck we managed to make that one work.
TIM NUDD: They improvised with props and wardrobe as well, often on short timelines. Jerry Solomon, Phil's old EP at Epoch, recalls a spot called "Stuffed," from 2007, which called for PC to walk in, completely bloated with trial software.
JERRY SOLOMON: "We want to do a fat suit for Hodgman. Here's the script. We want him to be like the Klumps," like that Eddie Murphy movie. And I'm like, "Oh, that's a 12-week, maybe more, maybe 20-week build." "Well, we need it for this shoot." And then, of course, agency people being agency people, said, "I know a guy who did this and he says he can get it." And so I'm like, "Great." I said, "Give me the name and number, or make the introduction." Of course, we talked to this person. "Yes. I worked on The Klumps. Yeah, Eddie Murphy had come in originally for a fitting. And then we did a mold and we did the cast. And then he came back for another fitting." And da, da, da, da, da. "It'll be six months." [laughter] And they went through this thing. And so I come back and I tell them that. And I said, "Look, six months? You've got to be insane." Then they would be like, "How much?" And I said, "Look." I said, "It doesn't matter." It's like "I know that—believe me. If I could tell you the money—" they're throwing money at it. And I said, "It's not a—it's not a money problem. It's a math problem." There's only so many days in the week. Unless you have enough money and technology to build a time machine to go back and start this process six months, we don't really have the money to do this, right? And Phil once again came up with a solution where he goes, "Because you know like—" and he says to me, he goes, "You remember that movie, Willy Wonka?" I'm like, "Of course." And he goes, "What if we do a fat suit like that for Veruca Salt? Do you know what I mean? Or Violet Beauregarde or whatever that becomes the giant blueberry?" And I'm like, "That might work." And then I think we called Stan Winston. And we explained it to them. And they're like, "Oh yeah. We can do that. We can do that in three days." And so that ended up being the suit. And so we solved the problem. It wasn't the Klumps that they wanted, but it was a great solve.
TIM NUDD: With so many spots getting made but then shelved, what was the secret to actually getting them on air? Alicia hinted at this earlier—it came down to something James Vincent would soon term "strategic humor."
JAMES VINCENT: And I think it probably took us a few rounds to realize what this was. But we would show Steve a very, very funny spot and he would laugh and he'd be like, "Yeah, no. We're not running that." And he'd laugh and"Oh, my God. That's the funniest one, but we're not running that." When you're laughing, you must be laughing at the point because then you'll remember it. And this was actually, I think, probably the single hardest thing, because God were there funny spots that never made it. And I think you might argue a lot of ads on TV are borrowed interest, right? There's the thing and then there's a joke. And you're like, "Oh, that was a funny spot. Who was it for?" "I can't remember. I don't know. It's just funny. The guy fell off and hit a donkey and bashed his head." "Oh, that's funny. What was it for?" I can't remember. Allstate, Interstate, freaking—I don't know, whatever. Something. An insurance company. Who cares? It was funny."
TIM NUDD: The scores of ads that were produced but didn't air included many with celebrity cameos. Some celebs spots did run—Giselle Bundchen portraying a Mac home movie in year one is one of Lee Clow's favorites. But many others failed the Steve test, and their celebrity, in the end, couldn't save them.
JASON SPERLING: Jenna Fisher, who was arguably the biggest sitcom star at that point, she was the Computer Fairy, granting PC's wishes. We had Jeffrey Tambor. I think he was in one. I think he was a genie. Jesus, we had genies and fairies! [laughter] We had James Carville helping PC with his strategy. We had Zack Galifianakis for Santa Claus.
TIM NUDD: The Galifianakis spot, where he apparently played a drunken Santa, has attained almost mythic status—one of the most notorious unaired ads ever. Jerry recalls Phil being a fan of Zack's before anyone knew who he was.
JERRY SOLOMON: Before The Hangover and all that kind of stuff, right, he's like, "This guy is super freaking funny and is going to be a star." And they did not want to cast him. But Phil was insistent upon it, and they did. And they literally gave him—and they didn't even know what they had. And so yeah, they threw it away. And Phil was really—it drove him crazy.
TIM NUDD: Long and Hodgman, normally unfazed about which spots aired, were aghast that the Zach spot didn't. They spoke about this just recently on Long's podcast [in the section that begins around 28:11].
JASON SPERLING: It's unfortunate because I just wish Apple would say, "You know what? Why not put those out there at this point?" There's just so much. You know, it's just this amazing graveyard of hilariousness.
TIM NUDD: As great as year one was, the agency—which by now had spun off into a stand-alone unit called Media Arts Lab—was ready to wind down the campaign, after highlighting most of Mac and PC's differences. But in January 2007, the greatest gift arrived in the form of Microsoft Vista, the new Windows operating system, which would be an unmitigated disaster—one of the great tech fails of all time. This would give Apple so much more fodder for new spots. Chuck Monn was a new creative director on the campaign by this point.
CHUCK MONN: For us, Vista was like a comedian with a bad president. They wrote themselves. Some of the things that Vista was was so painful and showed the difference between the two platforms so clearly that we just had to present them in a way that people could hear them because it was a pretty big disaster.
JAMES VINCENT: But my God, I mean, Microsoft's ability to shoot themselves in the foot over and over and over again with new product releases…that it gave us a whole fresh 40 arguments.
TIM NUDD: Vista couldn't have arrived at a better time. As Chuck recalls, they now got to extend what had really become a fine-tuned campaign.
CHUCK MONN: Especially year two and three, we'd show up to set, everyone knew exactly … it was the same crew, the same team almost. It was like a family reunion every year or every once every three months and you'd have everyone come back together. They know exactly where the cameras go. The actors would know exactly where they go and they would have such a shorthand with each other that you could power through so much. And we were writing scripts on set because you get that, "Well, that didn't work." So you could just write a new one based on the idea that it was such a well-oiled machine at some point.
TIM NUDD: As the campaign expanded in the U.S. with Vista, they also took it overseas—to Japan and the U.K.—where they cast local actors, remade some of the original spots, and also wrote some new ones. In both countries, they hired existing comedy teams. In Japan, it was Jin Katagiri and Kentarō Kobayashi...
TIM NUDD: In Britain, they chose David Mitchell and Robert Webb, known as Mitchell & Webb.
TIM NUDD: The U.K. campaign, though, was a bit troubled. First of all, the spots couldn't air on TV because of laws against comparative advertising. So they ran online. But also, the humor didn't land quite the same way. The British tend to be rather fond of conniving snobs, from Basil Fawlty on down, and they seemed to prefer PC over Mac—much more so than in the U.S.—something Webb, who played Mac, would acknowledge later on. Back in the U.S., a more successful evolution of the campaign was its move into digital. The work was groundbreaking for its time, with Mac and PC interacting with the ad space on publisher sites in fresh and inventive ways.
JASON SPERLING: Steve wasn't a big fan of posting ads around content he couldn't control, but we came up with this crazy way to make these very contextualized ads. We got a lot of big websites like CNN and New York Times and PC sites to basically change the design of their pages and actually allow us more real estate to make our ads. I think I actually loved those the most just because they were so fun, and you were physicalizing this digital space in a way that hadn't been done before and actually created something of value that was fun, that was being shared.
TIM NUDD: Back on TV, the Vista bashing continued through 2007 and most of 2008. But by summer 2008, there was a noticeable shift in tone—toward spots that were looser, a little wackier, with more oddball characters, themes and props. Soon, everything from biohazard suits to cheerleaders to time machines was getting through the Steve filter. They also did the campaign's first long-form ad, called "Sad Song," where PC sings a self-hating ditty called the "Vista Blues." Hodgman is great in this, but Justin Long, who has almost nothing to do for 90 seconds, has some pretty hilarious reaction shots too.
TIM NUDD: Later in 2008, the campaign got another boost when Microsoft released a whole campaign from Crispin Porter Bogusky themed "I'm a PC," starring Eva Longoria, Pharrell Williams and Bill Gates himself. Needless to say, the Apple creatives, upon hearing this news, were ecstatic.
TIM NUDD: For year four of the campaign in 2009, they moved on to other amusing hijinks, like Hodgman traveling to the year 2150 to see if PCs still suck—spoiler alert: they do—and Patrick Warburton playing a "top of the line" PC, suave but still glitchy.
TIM NUDD: And then, in October 2009, one last milestone for the campaign—the release of Windows 7, which replaced Vista. Apple gleefully made three new spots, including one with flashbacks—complete with awesome wardrobe changes—to every time PC had promised a great OS in the past and failed to deliver.
TIM NUDD: There was just one problem. This time it was different. Windows 7 wasn't bad—it was miles better than Vista, and not something Apple could use as a punching bag. It was this, combined with Steve Jobs' new focus on iPhone and particularly iPad, which would arrive the following year, that finally brought about the end of the campaign. They shot one more round of ads, in January 2010, but didn't air any of them. After producing 323 spots in three countries over four years, and airing 93 of them, Apple closed the door on "Get a Mac." It was the end of the line for one of the most remarkable ad campaigns in history.
JASON SPERLING: And the iPad was the new focal point. I think Steve thought it was the big future. Microsoft was not the competitor it once was. And Google was becoming a bigger competitor. Our last round, I don't think a single thing ran because Steve said, "Not my focus anymore. This campaign is officially dead."
TIM NUDD: In December 2009, two months after the final spots aired, Adweek named "Get a Mac" campaign of the decade—quite the honor for the brand and its agency, recognizing the excellence of the work over such a long stretch. And indeed, even today, for so many who worked on it, it remains a career highlight. How simple and funny it was. How tough to get right. How beloved it became in culture. Here's Alicia Marder.
ALICIA MARDER: That campaign, specifically, people would say, it's the one that they didn't fast forward. It's the one that they stopped and watched. And like, "Oh, I know those spots. I love those spots." Because for a long time, I would say, I'm a copywriter. People were like, "Oh, you work in law" or you were—they didn't really understand. But if I said, "I work for Apple and I do ads for Apple," they're like, "Oh, I know that. Yeah, I watched those. Those are great." It was like my mom was more able to just talk about it with friends. They would understand it. We didn't have creative by committee. We had creative by Steve, and he was our client, and what he said went. And so it felt … we heard direct feedback from him, not from the person who talked to him we talked to. You know what I mean? I still have an email saved from when he approved my "Shuffle" spot. It's like, "It's great. Approved" and that made me happy.
TIM NUDD: To Phil Morrison, what defined the campaign, above all, was its consistency.
PHIL MORRISON: Because people would often have ideas that were really good ideas and maybe even really good ideas that would be consistent with what Apple would want, but that would violate the principle that these guys are computers, not human beings. These aren't Apple users, these aren't Mac users or PC users. These are the actual machines, and the fact that through the many rounds of it, that they stayed true to those first principles, I'm proud of that because often campaigns that last a long time will start to kind of veer, and it's understandable why. Maybe they ought to, right? But I think these stay pretty much in the zone. I'm proud of that.
TIM NUDD: Scott Trattner credits the flexibility of the idea—how useful that was. And how setting something up to feel iconic, could then become iconic.
SCOTT TRATTNER: There was always this conversation in the agency or around clients and stuff is like, "What's the big idea? What's the big idea?" You know what I mean? I remember because we were doing "Silhouettes" and—that was the dancing people with the cords. But I was part of the evolution of that campaign. And creatives that Chiat would say like, "There's no idea. That's not a big idea." And it just didn't compute for me. I'm like, "Well, an idea doesn't have to be something that's said. An idea can be something that's felt. It can take on so many forms. That is a big idea." The reason I just rambled about that was to come back to Mac vs. PC is that whether it's a big idea, a small idea, there was a foundation of an idea that was flexible enough to help us tell the entire story that Apple wanted to tell. It was a very, very, very simple idea to hang whatever we wanted to hang off that idea. And I think that is the timelessness of it. And it was an iconic idea, and we always shot for iconic things on Apple. So the way we navigated that, Tim, was we had to start with the assumption in reductive basicness that it would just need to at least look iconic in the beginning, and then it was up to us to ensure it was iconic.
TIM NUDD: To Jason Sperling, the truth about all great work is, you need the idea, but you also need the will, at every step, to bring it to life.
JASON SPERLING: But I do think there is value in just pushing yourself and being at that point of complete despair or "I can't do any more" and pushing just a little bit more. If we hadn't picked that music track and stressed about that. All those nuances between those characters—stressed about that. If you're not trying to push everything, you'll end up like most of the things out there. Those things matter more than ever. I still feel incredibly fortunate that I was given this tremendous gift. It was a brilliant idea. And to have it placed in my hands and say "Funny Guy, make some great scripts" was a blessing.
TIM NUDD: Lee Clow, as always, points to the simplicity of "Mac & PC." But also to a client who cared about advertising, and wanted to make it great.
LEE CLOW: I was at some occasion. And Bill Gates was there with a friend of mine, Mike Slade. And so I was over talking with them. And Bill figures out I do the advertising for Apple for Steve. And I said, "Well, I hope we didn't hurt your feelings with the Mac and PC campaign." And he goes, "No, I don't care. Steve always loved advertising. I don't really care about advertising that much." [laughter] Steve loved advertising and he was a student of advertising. So he liked humor. He liked intelligence and it just had to be great by his definition. But I remember when we were talking about brands he admired, he loved the Polaroid brand because Dr. Land was a technology guy, he invented instant photography. But he remembered the James Garner and Mariette Hartley commercials where they sat next to each other in a very charming and amusing way and told stories about taking instant photos. So Steve was kind of a student of advertising. It was a bit of a departure just like "Silhouettes" was a departure for music. But Steve was willing to go wherever, as long as it, in his definition, was great. It's almost like the hamster in the wheel. We were going so fast. We thought it was good, but we were just busy making them! (laughs)
Tagline is a production of Muse by Clio, the content division of the Clio Awards. This week's episode was produced by Carly Angeloni and edited by Lane McGiboney. Our theme music is by Brian Englishman. Special thanks to the creative agency GUT for helping us promote the show. And a big thank-you as well to our sponsor, GSTV.