So there’s this company. Maybe you’ve heard of it. It’s called “Apple”. (I know– really non-threatening!)
I don’t harbor any animus against this company, personally. At least I didn’t. But several years ago, Apple started doing something that’s not very nice. You see, Apple has been talking shit about me for years. And they’ve been talking shit about lots of my friends and family. Apple, which makes computers and software and peripherals, likes to portray me and anyone else who owns a Windows computer as a nerd, a geek, a dolt, a fat and sweaty little dork. See that guy on the left? That’s supposed to be me! Apparently, if you like versatility and power over aesthetics, you’re a loser. And if you value aesthetics, ease of use and “cultural branding”, you’re like the guy on the right– you know, what a “cool guy” is to some advertising company that cooked him up in a committee. (Look at his slouchy pose! He must really represent the counterculture. You know, the kind of counterculture that shills for enormous, soulless conglomerates.)
Now, this is all a bit much, if you’re like me. If you’re like me, and you don’t think that advertising and branding actually relate to anything beyond a company’s desire to get rich, it’s a touch annoying. And if you purchase a computer based on (get this) the features and performance, you’d think the constant attempts by Apple to make personal computing about personality are quite grating. I find it a simple fact that a PC offers more versatility and power than a Mac, and for significantly less money. Now, nott everybody is interested in versatility and power as the chief or sole criteria for buying a computer. Different strokes, etc. But certainly, preferring not to pay more for a less powerful computer shouldn’t relegate anyone to the role of loser. And yet I can’t get away, on the television or on the Internet, from people telling me what a loser I am for having different evaluative criteria for buying computers. That has been Apple’s advertising strategy for years, after all. Let’s not mince words: this is not a war of equal aggression. There is an aggressor in this corporate relationship, and its Apple. In my opinion, there’s an aggressor in the consumer wars too. It’s Apple’s user base. But that may be a crude generalization on my part.
I’m not a fan of these “Windows users are nerds” ads. But look, business is brutal. Commerce isn’t nice. And neither is advertising. So I sigh, and I enjoy the $1500 I saved for buying a computer capable of doing more things better than a Mac, and I move on. That doesn’t throw me. What does throw me, though, is when Microsoft fights back, and Apple users start to cry. This is a phenomenon that astounds me– when the supporters of a particular corporation that has degraded and villified its competitor’s users straight-facedly complain about the competitor company doing the same.
It’s happened at Engadget and Gizmodo, to various degrees, and in many other blogs and websites. But it’s really taken hold at Slate. (Permanent Slate disclosure: I once applied to a job as an editorial assistant at Slate and didn’t get it.) Farhad Manjoo wrote what is in the opinion of this fairly well-read person one of the most fawning pieces of commentary you’ll ever find. Then, today, Seth Stevenson wrote this piece of advertising criticism about Microsoft’s ads that seek to strike back against the constant attacks from Apple. If you ask me, Stevenson’s piece is a dramatic failure of neutrality and common sense, though I am a biased observer. For example, he is the latest to suggest both that a)Apple is the little company made good, a can-do underdog, but b)Microsoft is really getting hurt by Apple!, and not seem to realize any contradiction. (What will aggressive Apple users do, I wonder, when they really have saturated the market? How can you call the other side sheep and zombies if you are part of a huge and growing throng?) Stevenson earns bonus points for essentially writing a takedown of Microsoft, and then saying “And, to pre-empt the hordes: I’d rather not get swept up in your overblown, Macs-vs.-PCs religious war. May I politely request that you battle it out elsewhere?” Classy, Stevenson!
(Slate used to be owned by Microsoft, which Stevenson says is a mess, and that Microsoft’s “foundation has begun to spring some cracks”. Slate is now owned by the Washington Post company, which as we all know is the very model of profitability and corporate strength.)
That Farhad Manjoo is a very vocal booster of Apple, and a very insulting critic of Microsoft, is no new development. I’ve enjoyed Stevenson’s writing in the past, but as with Majoo’s piece I find this article simply lacking any of the necessary incredulity that a professional writer should demonstrate towards any company. I shouldn’t read a piece in a professional magazine that could literally stand as advertising copy from a big corporation like Apple. What really drives me crazy is the utter lack of recognition from either of them that it is Apple that has created the never-ending arms race of insults and personality-based computer evaluation. Apple, going back decades, has thrown rocks through the windows of PC users. To turn around and criticize Microsoft for engaging in a little self-defense is absurd. And the Apple users so complaining are being absurd as well. You don’t slap somebody in the face and then get angry when they hit you back.
It’s Apple that started this. To me, it seems like this mirrors attitudes of users as well– I don’t go to the coffee shop and talk shit to Mac users, but I’ve seen the same from the other direction. PC enthusiast don’t proselytize, in my experience, they aren’t computer evangelists the way so many Apple users are. That’s likely just an artifact of my particular bias, though. Still, the point remains. Most of us just want to be left alone. And yes, I’d really, really like to watch TV for 15 minutes without being called a loser. I don’t know, maybe I’m crazy. I just don’t like being told that I’m a big nerd because I purchase different commodities than some people. Personally, I find many reasons to prefer Windows and the PC over OSX and Macs. (It is amazing how many of the supposed problems with PCs are solved by not being stupid and doing a tiny amount of learning about your computer.) Other people are different then me and like the features and options that Mac presents. Good for them. I couldn’t imagine caring enough to share my opinion about their computer choices without being asked. But I’m human, and so are a lot of PC users, and when human beings are goaded and insulted over and over again, eventually, they fight back. Can you blame them?
Look, Slate doesn’t often do self-criticism. So when I email Manjoo and Stevenson and they brush me off, I’m not surprised. (I once emailed Jack Shafer, Slate’s media critic, and he unbelievably denied that he often writes about journalistic ethics, which is sort of like Tom Friedman saying that he hardly ever writes about globalism.) Slate hasn’t, for example, corrected the simply factually incorrect statement from Manjoo’s piece that Apple dominated the notebook market in 2008. That’s a factual statement, and it’s just not correct. But the larger problem is yet another of my problems with Slate’s editorial and authorial culture, a mix of imperiousness and snark that continues to prize provocation over responsibility and restraint.
I keep writing about this stuff, at the end of the day, because I want to be left alone. That Apple won’t allow me to is a simple statement of the vagaries of advertising. That’s life. But I’d really like to be able to read a webmagazine without encountering yet more boosterism designed as cutting cultural and media criticism, particularly when that boosterism contributes yet again to the aggression from one corporation against the user base of another corporation.
Update: Frequent commenter Roque Nuevo tees off:
If you want to rant about something, how about the idea that people define themselves by the products they buy? Everything about advertising is “personality based.” You probably don’t remember the “Virginia Slims” ad–“You’ve come a long way, baby!”. It was for a cigarrette, for the love of Pat! It’s a hip and feminist way to stink up your house, hair, clothes, etc etc and probably die early. I always wondered who could possible take this stuff seriously. I always figured it was kids, since they’re the ones who want to be hip, feminist or whatever. Once the marketer gets the kids to buy, then the adults will as well, if only because the kids turn into adults some day. That’s why it works. Marketers are really the best psychologists out there today. They get results…out of kids!
You’re not a kid anymore, are you? Who really cares about these ads except kids? Everyone else will just laugh at the humor, or not, and then won’t remember the ad from one minute to the next.