The dot-com that's ripping off Apple's ads.

Advertising deconstructed.
Aug. 4 2003 10:19 AM

New Apple Clones

There's a reason those ads for BuyMusic.com seem so familiar.

When Apple launched its online iTunes music store not long ago, it promoted the new service with a set of distinctive ads. The spots (see them here) each featured an individual, against a white background, listening via headphones to an iPod portable music player and singing along to a favorite song. We couldn't hear the song, of course—just the person, singing a cappella, with or without musical ability. You could love these ads or be driven to distraction by them, but they stood out.

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More recently another music-download service has emerged, BuyMusic.com, with its own commercials. (See them here and here.) In those spots, individuals wearing portable digital music players with headphones sing along to music the viewer cannot hear, against a plain white background. In other words, they're basically the same ads. (The only thing they seem to have overlooked is calling their service BuyTunes, to get the rhyme.)

This is odd. So much so that I kept re-watching the BuyMusic ads to try and figure out what I was missing. Is there a hidden critique here? A satire? Not really. They're just knockoffs. It's as if, by borrowing the look and feel of Apple's ads, BuyMusic is explicitly interested in underscoring that its service is a copycat. Why?

Presumably the answer can be found in a phrase the pops up on screen partway through the BuyMusic ads—"Music Downloads for the Rest of Us." The great weakness of Apple's service right now is that it works only for Mac users who are running the OSX operating system. This is a relatively small number of people. Apple is supposed to release a PC-compatible version before too long, but in the meantime, "the rest of us" is a large market.

Actually that bit about making something "for the rest of us" is also borrowed (intentionally or not) from Apple, which pushed iMacs with the same phrase. In this case it seems that BuyMusic is employing it in a vaguely populist way that suggests only some sort of privileged elitist would own a Mac.

The Apple ads each focus on a single individual—such as a boomerish-looking guy singing "My Generation," or a young woman singing Pink's hit "Get This Party Stared," and sort of charmingly messing up the lyrics at the end. The BuyMusic spots each cut back and forth among several people (the masses, I guess) singing the same song—"Rapper's Delight" in one ad, "Superfreak" in the other. And instead of charm, there's a tendency to play for low-comedy laughs. An overweight woman and a central-casting middle-aged square are among those dropping lines from "Rapper's Delight." Another Clark Kent whitey gets to sing "She's super-freaky" in the other ad, which also inexplicably includes a man who apparently is supposed to be aHasidic Jew and who has a very bad singing voice.

The attempted humor is probably meant to make BuyMusic seem more approachable, but this notion is more or less drowned out by the overwhelming message that BuyMusic is a me-too idea. And that message ignores the fundamental truth that advertising is a form that's essentially antithetical to self honesty: It may be true that in real life "the rest of us" are trend-followers, not trendsetters—but none of us like to think of ourselves that way.

Thanks to reader Robert Lendvai for pointing me to the BuyMusic.com ads.

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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