Huckabee, Obama, Kerry, Dean: Are they Macs or PCs?

Why presidential candidates love to claim they're like Apple.

By Farhad Manjoo

Published December 10, 2007 10:32PM (EST)

As part of what they're calling the "Huckaboom" -- and you were just getting over Joementum -- Mike Huckabee's staff has posted a new Web feature that they hope will become an Internet phenomenon.

Fans of the Republican presidential candidate are creating video testimonials for him in the mold of Apple's "Switch" campaign of a few years ago, and you've been invited to submit your own. For instance:

Apple's "Switch" ads, directed by the documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, ran for about a year between 2002 and 2003. They featured celebrities as well as ordinary people talking casually to the camera about why they'd bought Macs, iPods and other Apple products.

You can watch them all here; to jog your memory, see this one featuring teenager Ellen Feiss -- it gained some notoriety after people noticed that she looks high as a kite:

Huckabee's Switch ads aren't meant for TV, so it doesn't matter much that they sound as if they were recorded in a bucket. Their main problem is not poor production -- it's that they are entirely unoriginal.

Huckabee is not the first presidential candidate to ape Apple's ads. He's not even the first to take on the "Switch" campaign -- in 2004, Errol Morris made a series of ads for in support of John Kerry, and that was after fans of Howard Dean created "Switch" commercials for the former Vermont governor.

The current political season began with another Apple spoof -- Phil de Vellis' pro-Obama "1984" ad, featuring Hillary Clinton as Big Brother:

Why do candidates -- and their supporters -- love to associate with Apple? The most important reason is that Apple's ads are distinctive; people remember "1984" and "Think Different" and "Switch" and "I'm a Mac, I'm a PC." If you're spoofing an ad, you've got to pick one people remember.

But there is also something irresistible about Apple's image. Few would disagree that the company owes its success as much to marketing savvy as to the utility of its products. When we think of Apple, we picture not only computers and music players and phones but also an identity, a value system and a set of beliefs, something very like a friend.

Apple is young, it's hip, it's clever, it's witty, it's got a sense of humor, it's knowing about pop culture, and it's stylish without being flashy. Apple is also an underdog, and it has triumphed by taking a different path from that of its competitors. For folks trying to sell new products -- political candidates -- the image represents a marketing bonanza. It's a way to latch on to many positive qualities in a single set of ads.

Sometimes the fit seems natural. Obama is clever, funny and even a bit stylish. With the help of his staff, the candidate has also displayed tech savvy. When Google's CEO Eric Schmidt asked Obama a software engineering question during a session at the company's Mountain View campus -- "What is the most efficient way to sort a million 32-bit integers?" -- the senator replied with a joke only Googlers would get: "The bubble sort would be the wrong way to go," he said.

Dean, whose campaign thrived on technology and fed off his underdog, outside-the-Beltway status, could also credibly claim to be like Apple. But such ads aren't pretty when a candidate's image doesn't mesh with Apple's. John Kerry, to take the obvious example, is manifestly unhip (he's not even hip in the way Tony Bennett was thought to be hip in the late 1990s, ironically). You simply can't picture the senator as the Mac character in those Mac vs. PC ads. He's the PC, and to argue otherwise strains credibility.

Mike Huckabee is young, he's funny, he's an underdog, and he's got a facility with pop culture -- so he does have some Appley qualities.

But in a bid to be like Mac, Huckabee's got a lot going against him, too. Chiefly his ideology: Huckabee is a conservative Republican. Apple, meanwhile, is thoroughly dipped in Northern California liberalism -- the company has Al Gore on its board and once featured Eleanor Roosevelt in its ads.

And yet Mike Huckabee doesn't seem to be a PC, either; he's a little too polished for that, and Mitt Romney is clearly the PC in the Republican race (Ron Paul is the Linux box).

So what is Huckabee? I open it up to you, readers. What tech brand does the former Arkansas governor most closely represent?

Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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2008 Elections Barack Obama Mike Huckabee