Washington Apple Pi

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Interview with Aaron Adams, “Switcher” (Part 1)

© 2003, Craig K. Contardi

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In the summer of 2002, Apple Computer launched yet another groundbreaking ad campaign called, "Switchers." Often imitated thereafter by other companies trying to grab the same level of 'buzz,' it featured a dozen testimonials from a cross-section of Americans about why they switched to Macintosh. Some participants met with more notoriety than others (but more on that later...), and one was gracious enough to meet with me on July 5, 2003 at the Dublin Pub in Dayton, Ohio.

Aaron Adams was arguably the first 'Switcher' to get his time in the limelight, by virtue of having his visage hanging on the exterior of the Javits Center during Macworld New York 2002 (again, more on that later...). The following are excerpts from our 90+ minute conversation. Aaron's friend Todd, a convert to Macintosh thanks to Aaron's real-life experiences, joined us.

Aaron Adams

Aaron Adams, Switcher.

CC [Craig Contardi]: I think I found our first non sequitur: this place is advertising free Wi-Fi access for laptops and PDF's!

AA [Aaron Adams]: (turning to Todd) Have you seen the Adobe commercial? First of all, don't call it Adobe Reader. Adobe validates the ignorance of users by renaming the program from Acrobat Reader to just 'Reader'. That's like someone telling me to "install Microsoft onto my machine". I hate that. The commercial makes it look like getting a PDF is like getting a present. Getting a PDF is not like getting a present, unless blasting your email space quota is your idea of a present.

CC: I was able to arrange this meeting because I began listening to the Your Mac Life Internet radio show, for which you volunteer your expertise to administer the discussion forums. I know that Shawn King [the host of Your Mac Life, and the guest speaker at the Pi's 25th Anniversary celebration] has had you, Janie Porche and Jeremiah Cohick on the show. How did you become involved with Your Mac Life?

AA: Apple seems to like to give my name out when the media calls them looking for switcher contact information. I was first on YML a year ago and Shawn asked if I was planning to go to Macworld New York; he said it's always a good time. I called Apple and they weren't sure they could provide me any sort of complimentary pass. At the last minute Apple got me a VIP pass. I arrived on a Tuesday evening since the keynote was the following day, and met with Shawn and the others at the hotel. Up to this point, no one at Apple had said a word about anything at the convention center that I might have a passing interest in knowing about in advance.

CC: ...such as "the Poster."

AA: Exactly. So the next morning I take a cab to the Javits Center. The cab pulls up to the curb, I step out and am greeted by this enormous 30-foot tall picture of my head hanging on the side of the building. I have to tell you I think it's a horrible picture, I hate that picture. I couldn't believe it; nobody was going to tell me about this? Shawn made me stay out there and he took pictures of me standing in front of it. The Apple booth inside had a circular banner hanging from the ceiling, and the same horrible picture. They'd show the Switcher commercials in between product demos in the booth theater, and Steve Jobs showed my commercial during his demo of the Mail application under Jaguar. Despite all this, only three people recognized me on the convention floor and said hi!

CC: Where are you most often recognized?

AA: I'd have to say at Apple stores, certain Apple events, and sort-of at Macworld. But this is Dayton, Ohio after all, not a hotbed of Mac activity. The nearest Apple stores are in Cincinnati and Columbus. In New York my ad is at a bus stop, on a lamppost, in a CompUSA window, and so on. Here in Dayton? Nothing. Some friends of mine called a local TV station and newspaper to tell them about the fact I'm local, and they apparently couldn't have cared less. When a 2-foot alligator is found in the river it gets two nights of coverage. Other friends of mine went to Atlanta on vacation and when they came back they said it was like I was on vacation with them because my ad was everywhere down there. In Oklahoma one person allegedly had 6 pictures of my various ads in his cubicle at work. All this attention elsewhere, nothing at all in Dayton. What I wonder is, are you really 'famous' if you're not popular at home? What does it mean in that case? Nothing.

CC: Not all of the great visionaries are famous in their own place and time.

AA: [laughs] If I was one of the world's great visionaries I don't think I'd be in TV commercials. I'd be living on a tropical island somewhere.

CC: Tell me what you can about the photo shoot for your ad.

AA: Apple had a web page in March 2002 asking for testimonials from people that had switched from Windows to Mac. I filled the form out and thought little more of it after that. I figured it was just for market research, and I might get a t-shirt or mug for my troubles. My wildest dream was that I'd get to be a beta tester for a new class of software. About two weeks afterward, I got a call from a lady at Apple, and we talked for about half an hour, expanding on the things I said in my original online submission. A few days later a second call came, and I started to catch on to what I thought Apple might be up to. Then I got a third call, and was told that Apple was shooting commercials in New York, Boston and Los Angeles, and I would be told only a couple days in advance when, and which location. They asked if I would like to do it, and I said sure. A week later I found out I was being sent to Boston two days hence. All I was promised up until then was a modest fee for the shoot and round-trip airfare. They ended up auditioning 80 people for the first round of commercials. For the entire shoot and a month afterward, none of the candidates knew their fate. We were told we might not be used at all, might be used only in print ads or on TV, only website, some combination of each. In fact my group in Boston included a lot of people that never were used. From my shoot they did use Dave Haxton, Patrick Gant, and Damon Wright.

There's a limit to what I can tell you about the shoot itself without exceeding my non-disclosure agreement, but basically I was in there for half an hour and instructed to just tell my story and talk freely. There were a couple people from Apple in there with me, plus the cameraman and the technical crew. It was clear these people were getting pretty weary of the whole process of listening to everybody drone on about their experiences. They looked like they just wanted to go home. While I was in there, a couple started nodding off, which did not inspire a lot of confidence in my oratory skills. [Craig put a happy face here.] When the camera needed fresh film, the makeup artist would come over and pat the sweat off my face. I'd ask if I was doing okay given that I was putting people to sleep, and was assured I was doing just fine. When the shoot was over, I went back to my hotel and flew back to Dayton the next day. Every time I called anyone at Apple asking about the final result, I was told that they still had not made up their mind. I did get a couple of proof copies of the print ads they proposed using that featured me, all the while the official line from Apple was they weren't sure. Those proofs were the first time I saw my horrible picture; It's scary to think that might have been the best picture they had of me. It was June 10th when I flipped open my laptop, went to the Apple website, and saw me staring back. I found out about it the same time as everyone else. Then the TV ads began, and the phone started ringing from friends telling me they saw me. I still run into people every once in a while that tell me, "I was watching TV, and I saw your giant head, and I said to myself, 'no way' because that can't be real". People have to watch the whole thing and convince themselves of what they just saw. So within the first day someone had already claimed I was an actor from San Francisco; I've never even been to San Francisco.

CC: Are you going to the San Francisco Macworld in January?

AA: I'd like to; I couldn't go last year because I had just switched jobs and did not have any vacation time saved.

Todd: You did a lot of 'switching' last year, huh?

AA: [smiling] That's not funny.

CC: Sure it is.

AA: [to Todd] Do you want to go to MacWorld Expo in January?

Todd: Sure.

AA: Initially I wanted to go back to New York again this year, but the more they changed the show the more I wasn't sure I wanted to go. I don't think of myself as a 'creative' person, I'm a technical person so it did not seem like the show had anything to offer me. Then Shawn invited me to go do radio bits for the show; I think it'll be a lot of fun. I've always wanted to do radio work, just to say I've done it.

CC: Have you seen any of the parodies of the Switcher ads?

AA: I think I've seen most of them, and didn't think they were funny. I've seen none that spoofed me though. I see that as a good sign; If my argument was weak or I had a personality quirk, I'd have been a target.

CC: I've got to bring up Ellen Feiss at this point.

AA: I knew you'd get around to that! Think about this: In her commercial, did she ever mention she owned a Mac?

[Todd looks confused at this point]

AA [to Todd]: Did you ever see the ad with the 17-year old girl talking about her school paper?

Todd: No.

AA [to CC]: See, outside of the 'Generation Y' Mac teenage community, she's not known. Todd's been my friend since when this whole thing started, and he has no idea who she is. Any 17-year-old girl would have had the same impact. Her story was not convincing to me. It's a shame that in the end an ad campaign with a lot of very effective, persuasive, convincing stories gets remembered for a girl apparently loopy on something. I thought Dave Haxton's story was lost in the overall mix, compared to some of the other stories. Here is someone with a credible background and I saw his ad far less than almost every other.

Like I already said, when we shot these commercials Apple did not promise us anything, it was clear we were doing it for the greater good of Apple. I don't know anyone who has grown wealthy off this campaign. I was in a movie though.

CC: Anger Management?

AA: Yes, for maybe eight seconds. The receptionist at my job told me about it. She said my poster was in the background, at the point in the movie right after Jack Nicholson cries about his mom. A couple nights later I took Todd and another friend to see for myself. Todd promptly fell asleep, but I woke him right before my cameo. To tell the truth, we left the theater right after that. What I find neat is that when they make a movie, do you think there's any part of that movie that isn't planned to the minutest detail? It was obviously left in for a reason. Apple very rarely ever pays for product placement in movies or on TV, so I don't think it was Apple telling them to put it there. I'm especially confident they would not pay for my blurry head. Mac hardware is popular because it looks good on TV.

CC: Are you reading something into this?

AA: [tongue in cheek]: I'm angry.

[The remainder of the interview was published in the January/February 2004 Washington Apple Pi Journal.]

Craig Contardi is currently the Secretary of Washington Apple Pi. He is married, with three children between the ages of 3 and 8.