Apple's Rare Ad Misstep: Celebrity Siri Ads That Slice the Wrong Way

Tuning In: Fussy Samuel L. Jackson Spot Turns Siri Into Tool for the Elite

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In two ads that seem horribly out of touch with modern consumer culture, Apple puts its iPhone 4S with the Siri electronic assistant in the hands of Samuel L. Jackson and Zooey Deschanel, and has them trill out any number of oddball commands: Tell me if that 's really rain I see outside. Help me find organic mushrooms for my risotto. Remind me to put the gazpacho on ice.

I'd like to argue that the commercials mark a singular -- and heretofore rare -- misstep for the popular consumer-electronics company (and its longtime ad agency, TBWAMedia Arts Lab), which ought to be producing ads that appeal to the broadest possible crowd rather than a narrow class of wealthy, privileged or unique.

Simply put, at a time when so much of this nation has an active distaste for the "one percent" that controls so much of its wealth, you'd think Apple would try to include the other 99.

It wasn't always this way. For decades, Apple commercials aimed to provoke downtrodden masses to rise up against ennui, corporate hegemony and bureaucracy. Think about the company's ever-popular "1984" Super Bowl ad, viewed by many at the time as a not-so-subtle poke against IBM. Consider Apple's 2001 TV spot -- surfacing in the aftermath of the furor involving record companies and Napster -- featuring Dwight Yoakum, Chuck Berry, Barry White and Liz Phair suggesting consumers make their own compact discs with Apple's iTunes. "It's your music," said funk musicia George Clinton. "Burn it on a Mac. Dig."

And don't forget the recent series of "Mac vs. PC" ads that portrayed Microsoft as a fussy, bumbling, paunchy leave-behind when compared with the hip-but-straightforward Mac.

Rather than spotlighting Siri -- and by dint of association, the iPhone 4S -- as a gizmo that can help anyone unravel the tangles he or she encounters every day, Apple is taking a different tack. The new spots basically position Siri as a substitute for the expensive and extraneous personal assistants and go-fers that seem so prevalent in the pampered culture of Hollywood.

For millions of Americans facing unemployment and a lack of health insurance, or even the prospect of dwindling help from Medicare or Social Security, purchasing such a machine to help track down organic mushrooms is likely the furthest thing from their minds.

To be sure, Apple has run ads that cast Siri as something that helps the little guy make dreams come true. One recent spot showed a teen rocker using Siri to plan a big show in his garage. "Siri," he says, after everything has been put into place, "call me 'rock god.'" Now, that 's something we might like to test out.

But marketers can't usually rely on consumers to watch new ads in the context of prior ads. Today's customer is far too distracted and busy to do such a thing in the moment. Consumers don't remember ad campaigns; they just remember ads.

Perhaps it's starting to show that Steve Jobs, whose amazing comprehension of the consumer mind-set was the force behind Apple's advertising voice, is no longer around to put his fingerprints on the company's commercials. Yet even without Mr. Jobs' finesse available, Apple should heed common marketing wisdom. You don't make consumers yearn to plunk down several hundred dollars on a fancy electronics device by portraying it as a frivolous add-on in the hands of people whose lives are nothing like theirs. Granted, it's surprising and even fun to come upon Ms. Deschanel or Mr. Jackson in commercials, but the sales pitch can't end there.

Has Apple become something that everyone can enjoy, no matter the social or financial status or level of fame? Or have the company's must-have gadgets slowly evolved into tools for the upper crust, while those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder can only sit and watch? It's a question Apple ought to ponder the next time it wants to make Siri and the iPhone look cool, rather than merely useful and necessary.

Tuning In is an ongoing series of commentaries by Ad Age TV Editor Brian Steinberg on the TV schedule, the ads it carries and changes within the industry. Follow him on Twitter.

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