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Prodigal Mac: The Age of Unnovation

Please, enough with the magic words already By Kevin Schmitt
I have a little test I like to call The Legend Test. It goes something like this: Let's say that the producers of a particular product decide to attach some form of the word "legend" to the advertising of their product. "The Legend of Brand X Barbecue Sauce," for example. To apply The Legend Test to a statement of this type, I place it in The Cowboy Scenario. Basically, if you can imagine cowboys sitting around the campfire at night uttering the same words without it sounding completely ridiculous, then it passes the Legend Test. Here's a statement that passes The Legend Test: "There once was a kid at school who could take out the class loser from fifty feet away with a spitball."

Okay, plausible. Insert "marksman," "bandito," and "six-shooter" into the same phrase, imagine cowboys spinning yarns about it, and it passes The Legend Test. Now, here's a statement that doesn't pass The Legend Test: "Brand Y All-Purpose Scrubbing Stuff has legendary cleaning power!" Somehow, inserting "Doc Dweevil's Unpure Humour Elixir and Anti-Mailaise Tonic" and "healing power" into the same statement doesn't make it any more likely to be uttered from a cowboy's lips. Marketing spin is marketing spin, which means that virtually any product with the superlative "legend" attached to it, whether produced in 1901 or 2001, is almost guaranteed to fail The Legend Test.

Are you following me so far? Good. Because there are a lot of words besides "legend" getting thrown around all willy-nilly these days. Words like "classic," "revolutionary," "innovation" and "breakthrough" are spewed out so much in everything we hear that they almost don't mean anything any more. It's almost as if the concept of a new idea is passť. If I just today came out of a coma I lapsed into circa 1990, I would think that I had never been out at all. A Bush is in the White House. We're at war in the Middle East. There's a starship Enterprise boldly going 'round the small screen. "Law and Order" is still on the air. Boy Bands and Teenie Bopper music are everywhere. Another "Crocodile Dundee" movie was just (thankfully, briefly) in theaters. There is '80s music all over the radio. You get the idea. Everywhere I look, I feel like I've seen or heard it before. Yet, if I choose to listen to the corporate hype, every last movie, song, product or service that comes around the corner is either highly innovative or a breakthrough. Enough already!

The unsavory technology industry
And the technology industry is, by far, the absolute worst offender. As unsavory as the industry spin is now, think back to just a couple of years ago, when some REALLY, REALLY BAD ideas for Internet-based products and services were touted by their representatives as virtually the best thing to happen to humanity since the discovery of fire. Mercifully, with the dot-com bust went a lot of the more infuriating and inane hype, but rest assured our buddies over in Redmond are still with us to take up the slack. Why, just recently, in a stirring press event, the likes of which have not been seen for at least several weeks (when the XP master disc was triumphantly transferred to computer manufacturers via helicopter), The Empire bestowed their newest gift to us privileged ones that make up the adoring masses: Windows XP.

Microsoft spared no superlative, heaping kudos upon their own latest "innovation," as if their very lives depended on it (which actually may be true). If you believe what they said, XP is going to revolutionize your enterprise with its legendary performance and numerous innovations. Why, if you don't happen to like the fruity goodness of the new Luna interface, you can even switch back to the "classic" Windows look and feel. I tend to think of a classic as being along the lines of the Mona Lisa or a '57 Chevy, not an ugly operating system interface, but who am I to argue with Microsoft's obvious genius? The XP launch is the perfect example of corporations attaching magic words to a product that isn't really worthy of them. In this case, there is nothing substantive in XP that you couldn't get last February when Windows 2000 came out, but Microsoft is acting like they've completely reinvented and revolutionized the entire concept of an operating system. In reality, it's slapping a coat of paint on Windows 2000 and trying to force another round of upgrades down our collective throats by telling us that it's all brand new.

It's sickening.

Masters of hype
Anyway, I'm only ranting because The Empire is such an easy target, and busting on them distracts me from getting to the heart of the matter. What really bothers me is that the "in your face" hype bug has seemingly bitten Apple as well. Don't get me wrong; hype is nothing new at Apple, and they are masters of creating it. But they usually build it through secrecy, mystery, a flair for the dramatic and a proven track record of innovation, not by directly telling you their products are deserving of hype by resorting to using the previously mentioned magic words.

Sadly, such is not the case with Apple's recently introduced iPod. Maybe they're taking a different approach to consumer electronics than they do with their hardware and software products, but I was disappointed to hear the word "breakthrough" attached to it. Sure, it's a nice little gadget, but a breakthrough? Please. It would have been a breakthrough if it had come out two years ago, but similar products have been available for a while now. Mind you, none of them to date have had a FireWire interface, but is that really enough to justify it being called a "breakthrough?"

Apple ran into a couple of problems with this introduction. The first is what I've been ranting about since the beginning of this article: Stop using the magic words to describe your own product. If it truly is a "breakthrough" or a "classic" or a true "innovation," time and the market will bring those words to bear on its own. The words ring hollow when spoken by the product's creator. Second, Apple's own track record with product introductions led directly to the heightened expectations for the iPod. At Macworld NY last July, many showgoers were profoundly disappointed by the hardware offerings unveiled there, leading to a decidedly "ho-hum" atmosphere at the show. But if I recall correctly, Apple said nothing at all about what hardware or software they were or weren't going to unveil. In fact, Apple rarely, if ever, gives any hints about what their plans are. So why start now? The iPod should have been introduced completely out of the blue, without all the fanfare, and in the process they could have generated some of the word of mouth buzz and excitement Apple is so famous for creating. Lastly, why not at least make it functional for Windows users? It doesn't have to be the fancy iTunes integration they're planning on having on the Mac side, but don't lock out Windows users who may be attracted to the iPod's FireWire interface as a selling point. If Apple is planning using the iPod solely to move Macs, I doubt many people will buy the iPod and, on a whim, just pick up a new Mac to run it on.

I don't know. Maybe I'm being too harsh on Apple. The iPod, once it's released, may turn out to be the breakthrough product we're told it is. But Apple spoiled the soup a bit by succumbing to the buzzmonkey hype tactics other technology companies constantly sicken us with. I'd like to chalk this one up to a new, albeit somewhat bungled, strategy for building excitement and awareness for Apple's burgeoning consumer product offerings. I really hope this is a one-time occurrence; I'd hate to think about the alternative.

Because if Apple forgot what a breakthrough truly is, what hope is there for everybody else?

Kevin Schmitt has been a working with just about every aspect of digital design since before it was called digital design. An award-winning multimedia producer, artist, and animator, he is currently the Digital Design Director for StudioAPCO, a creative shop housed at a communications firm in Washington, D.C. By all means, drop him a line at kschmitt@apcoworldwide.com.

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Though the fame, riches, and notoriety of being a DMN contributor are both tantalizing and substantial, Kevin Schmitt still stubbornly insists on continuing his work as the Director of Interactive Services at EFX Media, a production house located just outside of Washington, D.C. Feel free to follow his updates and contact him through Twitter if you have something to share - he's ready to believe you!
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