How Straight Talk Became a Casualty of Mac vs. PC Wars

It's a Scenario Not Uncommon in Technology Marketing

By Published on .

Judy Shapiro
Judy Shapiro
The holiday season is the time when all guns are blazing in the fight for precious consumer spending, and many savvy marketers are starting their holiday marketing programs now. One of the epic battles for holiday spending is between PC (aka Microsoft) and Mac (aka Apple) and each brand has drawn its battle lines with its respective "crush the competition" campaign to gain market advantage.

The PC-Microsoft campaign is about how you get more "value" for your dollar with PCs. While not brilliant, it is straightforward. The key message is you pay a premium for Mac-brand bling, whereas a PC gives more features and performance for the money. Score one to Microsoft for a clear message.

Now on to the Mac campaign, which has launched two spots. The first spot shows average "Judy Consumer" making a decision between a Mac and a PC. Judy Consumer first asks PC Guy if a PC can give her hassle-free computing without "thousands of viruses." PC Guy tries to tell her that these types of problems are inherent to the PC experience. When she hears that, she decides to go with Mac. In another spot, PC Guy is dressed up as Mac Guy to misdirect Judy Consumer into thinking that Macs and PCs suffer from the same host of security issues. In this case, Judy Consumer goes off to think about what to do. But in both Mac spots, the clear implication is that Macs don't have the same security issues as PCs do because Macs are technologically built to be more secure.

Now we all know, unhappily, that in any battle between titans, there is always collateral damage. In this epic battle, Apple seemed happy to sacrifice straight talk in its bid to win market share. It told the truth -- but it did not give Judy Consumer the straight story.

It is true that Macs, in fact, do have fewer viruses, as the spots say. But that's not the whole of it. Many of us in technology also know that Macs are no more inherently secure than PCs. The reason they have fewer viruses is simply because their relatively small market share does not yet warrant the attention of hackers.

Indeed, just to make sure I was right technologically, I double-checked my facts. I posed the following scenario to the CEO of a well-known security company: "If PCs and Macs had equal market share, would Macs be safer than PCs?" His blink-of-an-eye answer was, "No, Macs would not be safer."

He gave me an excellent metaphor for the situation. He said Macs are no safer from viruses than Native Americans were safe from smallpox before the Europeans came. True, Native Americans were not dying from small pox before the Europeans -- not because they were immune but because they had never been exposed. We all know the tragic truth in that case.

And that is what I take issue with: Apple wants Judy Consumer to believe that its lack of viruses results from better Mac engineering or security technology. That is not straight talk; that is misdirection. Even worse, that strategy promotes bad computing practices, because many threats result from bad things happening on sites (such as identity theft) that have nothing to do with the computer. But Judy Consumer has been told that Macs are safer, so she is not really thinking much about security at all anymore, and that is not good.

The saddest part of this story is that the fact that Apple is hardly alone. (Sigh.) Misrepresentation of the truth by technology marketers to gain competitive advantage isn't isolated to Apple. Many tech companies feel they can be slipperier with the facts because, heck, Judy Consumer won't really understand it anyway, and so it's easier to get away with. She's unlikely to understand that when a small chat community wants to seem bigger than it is, it will boast about its millions of "users," obscuring the reality that millions of user IDs translates to a mere 10,000 active, real users. Or when the Bing ad campaign promotes a "decision engine," Judy Consumer is left scratching her head about what Bing exactly decides. And when Judy Consumer is trying to buy a new storage service, she is not clear about what is free and what is a premium service.

Don't get me wrong. I am not saying that you have to be a weak competitor in the battle for market dominance. But why does straight talk in technology marketing have to be one of the casualties of war?

Judy Shapiro is senior VP at Paltalk and has held senior marketing positions at Comodo, Computer Associates, Lucent Technologies, AT&T and Bell Labs. Her blog, Trench Wars, provides insights on how to create business value on the internet.
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