The mystery of the Dell dude.

Advertising deconstructed.
June 3 2002 1:30 PM

The Mystery of the Dell Dude

For a long time now, I've avoided the Dell Dude. People have been writing to me about him from the beginning—the spot in which "Steven" videotapes an appeal to his parents for a Dell PC. I saw it many times, of course, but I couldn't think what there would be to say about it: It seemed so low rent, so temporary. But the ads kept coming, and soon it was clear that Steven was a phenomenon. The Wall Street Journal ran a story on how the series had "made a celebrity" of the actor who plays Steven and that his catch phrase, "Dude, you're gettin' a Dell," had become "a kind of all-purpose 'Good Job!' for slackers." That same week, Michael Musto threw in a reference in his Village Voice column: "How cute is that Dell elf, huh?" Still, I figured the thing would run its course, but no, Steven is still with us, appearing recently in what various fan sites (!) say is his 11th spot. You can see that and another recent Steven ad via the Ads.com Web site.

"You're gonna say it, aren't you?"
"You're gonna say it, aren't you?"
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The "Dude in Car" ad: Steven is out driving in a convertible with a young lady. (Take note, Mr. Musto.) He meets up by chance with a neighbor who is out computer shopping and flummoxed at the choices. Steven replies with the twitchy, goofball ebullience that is his trademark: "Your computer quandary is easily solved by the folks at Dell," he says, delivering these words as if he might burst out laughing, or perhaps wet his pants, at any moment. "Just call or go online. They'll help you figure it out." His date looks charmed by Steven's mastery of Dell's marketing pitch, and the neighbor announces that he feels better already. Then he frowns: "Uh, Steven, isn't this your father's car?" The young date slides Steven a glance, as he gives the neighbor a sort of pleading, don't-blow-it-for-me look and says, "Uh, noooo." We cut away to some product specs, then back to Steven and his date, who kittenishly asks, "You're gonna say it, aren't you?" And as they drive away to watch the submarine races or whatever, we see the bumper sticker: "Dude, You're Gettin' a Dell."

"Where will I go from here?"
"Where will I go from here?"

The "Carpe Dimension" ad: Here we are at graduation, where Steven, improbably enough, is addressing his classmates. "Today we are asking ourselves a lot of questions," he says, stiltedly. "Questions like, 'Where will I go from here?' " (He clicks through a slide presentation, showing Steven looking out into the distance.) "What do I need to get there?" (A slide shows Steven stroking his chin.) The principal looks over at him suspiciously, but of course Steven is too stoked by the moment to notice. "As we look to the future, there are answers!" He tilts his hands forward in a classic dude gesture and says, "The folks at Dell have them!" He gives a quick sales pitch and winds up with a shout of "Carpe Dimension! Seize the Dell!" We get some specs on the Dell Dimension PC. Steven reveals that the top of his graduation hat has the company slogan on it.

What's with this dude? The question isn't whether Steven is an advertising success, but why. Although he's occasionally identified as a "surfer," I think it's pretty obvious that it's more the "stoner" cliché that he's riding: Like ur-dude Jeff Spicoli, he seems lost in a strange haze that makes him oblivious to certain social conventions and has marred his ability to communicate. But Steven is off drugs and high on Dell—he takes hit after hit of the PC maker's excellent features and services until he's totally wasted, all consumer-blissed out. And unlike some other drugs, this narcotic leaves him neither sluggish nor dangerous—he's just cuddly and sweet and licensed to shill. Unlike Stuart, the obnoxious young pitchman for Ameritrade, Steven is not a threat. He'll uplift his classmates and probably won't do anything more untoward with the girl next door than try to sell her a laptop. Sure, Steven is amusing in a Dumb and Dumber kind of way, but perhaps it's that harmless, almost naive innocence that drives us all wild.

Still, we're all bound to get sick of him at some point. Apparently the actor, Benjamin Curtis, has ambitions as a serious actor, hopes he won't be forever typecast as the goofy Dellster, and wants to make a name for himself in indie films. Good luck, dude.

******

7 UPdates: Several people wrote in to say that the guy I described in last week's Ad Report Card as "squirreling away a can of 7 UP for safekeeping" in a sock was in fact making a weapon. This shows once again that I don't know as much about prison weaponry as my readers do. Also, I should have given Reuters credit for its article about 7 UP deciding to take the ad off the air; and contrary to what the various reports said, the group that complained about the spot was Stop Prisoner Rape, not Stop Prison Rape.

Rob Walker is a columnist for Yahoo Tech, a contributor to Design Observer and the New York Times, and the author of Buying In.

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