gandhi was no pitchman

Apple clicked on the wrong icon for its "think different" ad campaign.

Published November 4, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

I'm writing this on a Macintosh, which is the only kind of computer I've ever owned. But if I ever need another one (and I may not -- I just use it as a glorified typewriter, and so it has oceans more power than I require), I'm going to buy a PC. And all because of an ad.

I was leafing through some magazine at the library when the back cover caught my eye: Mahatma Gandhi, cross-legged in front of his loom, wire-rim glasses perched down his nose, wearing only a loincloth that he had doubtless made himself. And in one corner, the Apple logo and the words "Think Different."

Despite its wounded grammar, this ad is not very difficult to decode. Gandhi has great power as an icon (in the archaic meaning of the word). One look at him and you think, "simplicity," "calm," "rebellion without violence." The associations come as quickly and as powerfully as they do in an ad with, say, Pamela Anderson Lee, where you immediately think, "sex on a beach." And for Apple, of course, it's important to endow its box of chips with those associations. Fairly or not, Apple has long since lost the battle for "efficiency," which is the chief virtue of the data age. It's stuck defending a few niche markets -- design, education, certain kinds of media -- where rebellion remains a nostalgic touchstone. So Gandhi makes a certain kind of mercenary sense.

But Gandhi is different. While it is ignoble to use Albert Einstein (another of Apple's icons) as a pitchman, it is not perhaps immoral in quite the same way. Einstein was more or less a part of his century; his magnificent mind did not take him outside the flow of recent history.

Gandhi really is different, far more different than the copywriter seems to have understood.

He was the eruption in this century, and in some ways this millennium, of a venerable idea, an idea that stretches back at least to the Buddha -- the idea that by leaving yourself behind you find yourself, that by renunciation you conquer. So it is bizarre to use him to sell products. When he died, all his belongings -- toothbrush, Bhagavad Gita, loincloth -- fit inside a couple of shoe boxes.

But that's not the real degradation. Were Apple merely selling computers it would only be grubby to use Gandhi's picture. Instead, of course, they're trying to sell each of us an image of ourselves. Which is precisely what Gandhi spent his life trying to help people strip away. In the fight for Indian independence (against the biggest brand name of his era, the British Empire), he succeeded in helping a nation shrug off its own internalized sense of subjugation, its own sense that Britishness, like Appleness, was superior. And he did it without trying to substitute the usual nationalist passions.

He went well beyond that, too -- his battle against the caste system was in reality a battle against even more insidious self-labeling, against identities ingrained in the unconscious of an entire subcontinent. And though he was a devout man, he even tried to fight against the religious brands -- his prayers each night came not just from the Hindu scriptures, but from the Gospels, from the Koran. He was assassinated by a fanatic Hindu precisely for his lack of brand loyalty.

Gandhi believed there was something sacred and lovely at the center of people, and that to get to it each of us needed to cut through the various lusts and fears of everyday life. That was hard enough to do in village India; how much harder in our time and place, when we live amid a hurricane of messages and symbols all designed to overlay our own identity. Gandhi, in other words, was the chief spokesman against the consumer mentality since Christ -- against the idea that the ownership of a particular kind of computer might free you, make you more creative or rebellious or attractive.

Trying to sell a Macintosh with Gandhi's image is every bit as ironic as selling cigarettes with a picture of healthy, sexy young bodies. (Or as ironic as the Land Rover ad some years ago that said: "Celebrate Thoreau's Birthday. Drive Through a Pond.")

Eknath Easwaran, the California meditation teacher whose book "Gandhi the Man" is the simplest, and therefore loveliest, of the many Gandhi biographies, describes seeing Gandhi meditate during the evening prayer service in the last years of his life. The text that evening was from the second chapter of the Gita. As the sonorous verses were read, you could see him completely absorbed, his mind growing calm and still. His concentration was so complete that it was no longer the second chapter you were listening to, it was the second chapter you were seeing, witnessing for yourself the transformation it describes:

They are forever free who have broken

Out of the ego-cage I and mine

To be united with the Lord of Love.

This is the supreme state. Attain thou this

And pass from death to immortality.

On the other hand, you could have 1.6 Gb, a 10xCD-ROM, 128 MB RAM and a smug dose of superiority.

By Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben is the Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, and founder of the global climate campaign His latest book is "Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.".

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