The Critical Change That Made Mac Versus PC Unforgettable
Why Comedy Is the Most Effective Way to Advertise
I rubbed my eyes after staring at a creative brief for what seemed like an eternity. Blink. Blink. The brief was nothing but a laundry list of benefits. I scratched my head. The client insisted on a well-known progressive radio talk show host as the spokesperson. Tempted, I rifled through the sexier briefs on my desk. If I had simply done my job, that campaign wouldn’t have had much of a chance.
Instead, I called the agent of the spokesperson’s nemesis, one of the most conservative radio talk show hosts in the country. Both hosts agreed to appear alongside each other in a series of commercials for some spirited but good-natured political sparring.
It’s one of the oldest writing structures in the book: comedic opposites. But it’s a little trickier than turning dogs and cats loose in a phone booth. A terrific example of comedic opposites is the 2013 Samsung Super Bowl commercial that brought together Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd in “The Next Big Thing.”
Comedic opposites always work better when the characters are lashed together with an emotional bond or similar goal. For example, Rogen and Rudd are vying for the same job. Other examples could include two characters trying to get the same girl or struggling against loneliness in the world. In both of these scenarios, each person is trying to do the same thing, but in radically different ways as they filter information through their own unique prism
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Possibly the most revered campaign featuring comedic opposites is the Get a Mac campaign for Apple.
The original versions starred Justin Long (Mac) and John Hodgman (PC), and were directed by Phil Morrison. The campaign was so popular it was translated into other languages and recast for Japanese and British audiences.
The simple, childlike music bed was used in all versions because it works so well. It emotionally steers viewers in the opposite direction of the conflict. Mark Mothersbaugh of the band Devo composed the song, “Having Trouble Sneezing.”
Long forgotten is the preceding Apple campaign, Switch, which had a lot of similarities to the Get a Mac campaign.
Each person was filmed in front of a white background.
They explained the benefits of the product.
All the people filmed identified themselves as once being a PC person.
All the people filmed identified themselves as now being a Mac person.
The Get a Mac campaign evolved the Switch idea by casting personifications of a Mac and PC, who each debated the pros and cons of a specific product feature. It wasn’t a giant leap, but using comedic opposites made all the difference to this campaign. This article from Campaign details the epic struggle at TBWA/Media Arts Lab to develop the iconic concept.
According to financial reporting, sales were slowing during the Switch campaign. However, after the launch of Get a Mac in 2006, sales increased by 39 percent.
Below are a few tips you can use to take your commercials to the next level when working with comedic opposites.
Start the conflict at a global scale (the larger issue), but then quickly make it personal (about each other).
Move from outer to inner desires.
Begin subdued but end physical.
Both characters start out trying to complete a similar task, but the objective quickly becomes defeating the other character.
The reaction shot is always gold (this applies to most comedy).
End by pulling back to reveal a fact that has been hidden from the audience (or the characters).
Breaking the fourth wall (talking to the camera or the narrator) helps the audience identify with that character.
We don’t have to like either character (just their objective) unless they are a personification of the product.
If the battle becomes ridiculous, have someone else speak the truth at the end (the narrator, a new character or a title).
One last thought: The audience needs to quickly recognize each character’s objective. If you’re dealing with well-known characters or stereotypes, the audience will immediately understand. But if you’re using characters the audience doesn’t know, you need to immediately establish that these are two people with conflicting agendas.
Mike Johnston is a production executive and advertising creative in Seattle. He is available for freelance consulting, writing and directing. Contact Mike
Want to know more about creating comedic characters? Read, "What the Funniest Characters in Advertising Have in Common."