Ad Report Card: Rebel IBM

Ad Report Card: Rebel IBM

Ad Report Card: Rebel IBM

Moneybox
Commentary about business and finance.
Aug. 14 2000 12:24 PM

Ad Report Card: Rebel IBM

Hey, you know what's going on out there in the business world? Fundamental change, that's what. The amazing thing about this is not that it's true or that it's false but that it's been repeated, ad nauseum, for years, and people are still finding new ways to pass off the same observation as some sort of fresh, counterintuitive epiphany. Consider, for example, a couple of recent commercials for IBM, which you can see via Adcritic.com, using the QuickTime plug-in. One attempts to amuse with a riff on the absence of flying cars in the year 2000; the other tries to piggyback on the change-embracing credibility of Linus Torvalds.

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The Ads: In the first spot, actor Avery Brooks (whose credits include Deep Space Nine), wearing an overcoat and a severe expression, lingers near the Brooklyn Bridge. Traffic, filmed in black and white, creeps by. The soundtrack sounds a bit like the opening of the Tom Waits song "Swordfishtrombones." "It's the year 2000," Brooks announces in his stentorian voice. "But where are the flying cars? I was promised flying cars. I don't see any flying cars. Why?" He glowers into the camera in a series of rapid cuts. "Why? Why?" Then in a less alarming but still brisk voice, he continues: "Because millions of people all over the world can work together on the Web, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You don't need flying cars ..." (you fool) " ... but you will need a different kind of software." Ah.

The second commercial features the same sort of black-and-white footage, this time opening on a vaguely gritty street corner. "1991, Helsinki," Brooks begins sternly. "A 21-year-old student named Linus Torvalds writes a new computer operating system." The spokesman seems to be sitting in a diner--in Helsinki, I suppose. "He calls it Linux, then does something revolutionary. He gives it away. Free, over the Internet. The powers that be dismiss him as an eccentric, a freak. But everywhere coders and freethinkers embrace Linux, improve and refine it. Now the forces of openness have a powerful and unexpected new ally." Up pop the white titles on black background: "IBM supports Linux 100%." The spokesman wraps it up with the ads' worldly-wise tagline: "It's a different kind of world. You need a different kind of software."

What They're Trying To Say: Hey, you know what's going on out there in the business world? Fundamental change, that's what. The additional message is that the company that really gets this fundamental change is IBM. Isn't that a relief?

What To Make of This: The flying-cars spot, for instance, plays to the viewer's weariness of dumbass prognostication. That seems like a reasonable instinct: Pie-in-the-sky predictions of the sort that used to be limited to the World's Fair are now pretty much inescapable, so a small dose of actual skepticism seems like an interesting gambit. But it's a very small dose, because it turns out that the only reason we don't have flying cars is that the Internet is actually better than flying cars. There are still no limits to what technology can accomplish. So, I guess those suckers stuck in traffic on the bridge just haven't yet taken full advantage of IBM software. Or something. The other ad is even more of a balancing act. It doesn't take a great deal of deep thought to recognize that IBM's motivation for becoming a  "powerful new ally" to Linux-friendly "freethinkers" is that the company sees some cash-in potential.

These ads, then, want to walk a very fine line. They're trying to tell us that despite the fact that the whole world is in a state of weird flux, you can still rely on one of the same old giant, totally familiar companies you've always dealt with to figure it out for you. They're saying: Look, we know you want to pass yourself off as a maverick, but maybe you're not even sure how "Linux" is pronounced, so call IBM, and we'll figure it out for you.

The Grade: C-. It's hard to fault IBM too much for this line of thinking, since practically everyone in the technology business is trying to pass himself or herself off as a rebel of one sort or another. Even so, I think these ads rely too much on a kind of bluster that's particularly unconvincing--the same tones of someone who not so long ago believed there really would be flying cars in the year 2000.