IBM's spots are magic, but sense does a disappearing act

By Published on .

The new IBM campaign from Ogilvy & Mather, New York, is good. It's clever, pointed and undeniably entertaining ... yet, somehow, just not quite right.

The flaw takes a while to figure out. It's subtle, and not necessarily severe, but it's there nonetheless and it sort of gnaws at you unseen, like mice in the wall chewing on the wiring.

The theme is "Business on Demand." The concept is classically IBM, in which the target is invited to dismiss penny-ante players in favor of blue-chip Big Blue-if not for its technology or its know-how, at least for its security. Of all the benefits IBM confers, the biggest by far is a safe choice. Nobody ever got fired for taking the express train to Armonk.

But now, with every Tom, Dell and Harry peddling I.T. solutions, more than ever IBM must communicate that there are no magical answers, nor too-good-to-be-true promises that ever come true.

The central metaphor for that notion is a corporate boardroom where the CEO and his flunkies sit around examining a series of unlikely technological gizmos. In one spot, they look over a Business Time Machine that purports to let them erase mistakes made in the past. Another shows them fiddling with a pair of Magic Business Binoculars that supposedly let them peer into the future. Another is about a Magic Business Lamp, genie and all. Another Magic Business Beans, and so on.

The best, and funniest, commercial shows them examining a contraption that looks like a Magic 8 Ball with a series of ports and interfaces bolted to it.

"What is it?" the CEO asks.

"It's a UBA."


"Universal Business Adapter."

"What does it do?"

"It connects anything to everything." Here the boss begins pointing to the various ports.

"What's this for?"

"Your laptop ... your mainframe ... call center ... Unix servers ... Linus servers ... Internet ... supply chain ... payroll system ... H.R. ... e-mail."

"Slick," the CEO says. "Is it affordable? Fast? Easy?"


"Does it work in Europe?" he wonders. And all eyes turn to the guy who has brought in the device.

"You need an adapter."

Then a title card: "There is no Universal Business Adapter." So call IBM.

It's just so funny and so to the point, holding up to ridicule all of the extravagant promises made every day to managers by suppliers of this-and-that software, this-and-that hardware, this-and-that brand of consulting services. If someone walks in saying they're going to integrate your whole operation and save you a fortune, caveat emptor. Ain't no genies out there, chum.

It's a brilliant strategy ... but ... but ... something just seems off-kilter. Some nagging dissonance. But what?

Oh. Got it. If there ain't no genies, no time machines, no magic beans, what exactly is IBM claiming to be? The answer is: A magical solution, the very same inflated promise of one-stop-shopping for all your business problems that the campaign explicitly means to explode. It's a logical flaw.

But not a fatal one, because, fundamentally, IBM still offers customers the ultimate benefit. Not UBA, but CYA.

C stands for "Cover." Y stands for "Your." And A doesn't stand for "Assets."


Ogilvy & Mather, New York

Ad Review Rating: 3 stars

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