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I approached this assignment with a mixture of curiosity and dread. I had been asked to be a judge at Apple's Give Your Dreams a Chance contest, in which loyal Mac users could win fabulous prizes for creating and producing their own TV commercials that demonstrated how Macs helped them make some dream come true. Now, in an age when most people won't even bother writing letters, did the Apple folks really think that Mac users would spend the time and effort to craft homemade ads and send them in? Especially when the prizes were just a trip to Cannes for the ad festival or a Mac Performa video editing system? After all, even America's Funniest Home Videos used to hand out ten thousand bucks each week.

Well, the lesson I learned here is never underestimate the passion of fanatics-Apple got over 150 entries. A couple of dozen were quickly eliminated for not following the contest rules, leaving a cool 123 spots that made the final competition. Imagine having to wade through these-the thought made my head spin.

So I did it, all at once, too, and came to the conclusion that there are testimonials and then there are testimonials. Most of these ads are crude, often clumsy but nonetheless earnest attempts by regular folks to demonstrate their unconditional love for these products. More than a few are not bad at all. Indeed, a couple are surprisingly good, and most of those were found in the Amateur category.

The contest was promoted mostly at trade shows and on the Internet. The entries were judged at Apple HQ in late April by a panel that also included David Roman, Apple's VP-global advertising; Melinda Kanipe, senior art director at BBDO/West; Arne Hurty, design director at Macworld Online; and John Friedlander, president at the Macintosh Consultants Network and associate director of the Apple Customer Advisory Board, who had pitched the idea to Apple in the first place.

The brief was fairly simple: show how Apple had helped you realize some form of a dream, and do it all on a Mac. Consideration was given in the judging not just for the originality of the spots' respective ideas, but also for the effective use of desktop video, animation, editing and music software.

Three winners were chosen in the Under 15, Amateur and Professional categories. The Under 15 winner, Mark Thornton of Sunnyvale, Calif., created a funny spot in which he has a nightmare that his Mac has turned into a DOS machine. The Amateur winner, Jeph Folkins, 29, of San Francisco, produced an extremely polished spot in which he documents how he used his Mac to make a short film set in (of all places) France. Folkins, who produced the spot with his girlfriend, Anastasia Emmons, works for a company that makes underwater video gear, although he might have a more promising future as a writer/director. The Professional winner came from Robert Schlecht, 31, and his brother Michael Schlecht, 25, partners in a small Los Angeles-based video editing company. In their spot, two cute tykes use a Mac to make games come alive.

So far, Apple's marketing people have shown the winning spots at internal meetings, and they're always a hit. But when you consider Apple's continuing turmoil, the thought that this contest could have generated some useful positive public relations has not been lost on some of the judges, particularly Friedlander. The lack of promotion has him worried that this will become another of Apple's "well kept secrets," and that would be a shame.

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