Thursday, May 11, 2006

Apple TV commercial disses geeks?

Well, not precisely, but close enough. I consider myself an Apple fan, but I'm not a huge fan of the commercial ("Network") in question.

If you haven't seen it yet, here it is.

The important part to note is the Japanese dialogue spoken by the digital camera woman. After some basic pleasantries, her last line can be translated to "he looks kinda otaku-ish".

Now, regular readers of this blog or people familar with my writings and research in general have heard me talk about otaku over and over. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, I'll point you to my most commonly-cited otaku essay: "The Politics of Otaku" (which has links to more information). To make a long story short, it's not wholly inaccurate to translate 'otaku' as 'geek'. There are some important distinctions between 'otaku' and 'geek', but they are very closely related ('anorak' might be even better, but only British readers will get that).

So why am I bringing this up? I have to say that I was somewhat surprised to see 'otaku' used in the Apple ad that way. Of course, most Americans watching the ad won't know what she said, and the main point of the ad is simply that the PC guy doesn't know how to communicate with the Japanese digital camera woman, leading to an awkward moment for him. It also appears that the Mac guy and the digital camera woman are sharing an inside joke, chuckling while the PC guy is forced to look on, feeling excluded.

Of course, with the internet, it's very easy for television viewers to find out what she said, and as it turns out, she was mentioning how the PC guy looked kind of like an otaku (or a geek, or nerd if you prefer), and then laughed about it with the Mac guy.

Why did they have her say that? Yes, it's true that otaku are not always looked upon very highly by certain segments of Japanese society, but did Apple really want the protagonist of their commercial to engage in or sympathize with outright mocking of otaku/geeks? It seems a little distasteful. After all, don't we affectionately consider Jobs and Wozniak to be geeks? Furthermore, in the last year, otaku have enjoyed a wave of positive media attention in Japan [see my article The Evolution of Otaku Concept for more discussion of that].

Another weird thing about the statement she made is that the PC guy doesn't look anything like an otaku. Now, I'm not a fan of physical stereotyping, and I know that otaku come in all shapes and sizes, and are not restricted to any particular "look", but given the PC guy's conservative and business formal attire, I can't figure out why she would say he looks like an otaku. She might be referring to his general build, haircut, and/or glasses, and if that's the case, it's even more shocking that Apple would have a commercial making fun of those things. Maybe the guy doesn't have the look and presence of an action movie star, but so what? What ever happened to the philosophy behind the Apple Switch ads featuring regular looking people as the stars?

Just like in the US, there are people in Japan (many of whom might be considered otaku) who are really into Apple Computer products. Why would the company risk alienating its otaku userbase in Japan, not to mention all the PC-using otaku? Apple is all about passionate, free-spirited, and iconoclastic users, so such an ad is an odd contradiction and possibly a foolish move.

There are the plenty of Americans (anime and manga fans, mostly) who call themselves 'otaku', as well. This ad doesn't speak very well to them, either.

To me, the most ironic thing is that this commercial might very well be the most widely broadcasted use of the word 'otaku' in American television history. Let's hope Apple (or whoever else) does it better next time.

[Thanks to Lillian for providing the translation]


  1. Someone in American marketing came up with that joke.

  2. I wonder how the snobby digicam girl would react to an "Onna Otaku" (female geek)

  3. Lillian found a thread on 2ch where people in Japan posted their reactions to the Apple commercial. Here are some quotes (warning: most of these quite mean):

    "this is what Americans think a pretty Asian should look like"

    "he doesn't look very otaku. just middle aged and fat"

    "digicam has too much makeup. such stereotypical Hollywood Asian"

    "what, Mac users aren't otaku? I'd punch digicam and make her take it back if it were real life"

    "she should be wearing glasses - a lens being a part of digicams and all"

  4. I used to call myself an otaku - I'm now proud not to.

    Lord almighty, it was a joke. That's it. Any geek and/or otaku who get bent out of shape out if it deserve to be bent out of shape. I would not at all be surprised, however, if non-Japanese folk who call themselves otaku do indeed get bent out of shape, as being rational and easy going about things is typically not one of their strong points.

    The commercial was funny. End of story.

  5. Nothing personal, shidoshi, but I have to disagree with your reasoning.

    Saying (or implying) "it's just a joke, get over it" is a cop out response too often used to justify insensitivity and intolerance.

    Making someone angry and then accusing them of being irrational (or overly emotional) is a con game. So is making jokes at their expense and then claiming they have no sense of humor.

  6. We aren't talking about making fun of a person's race, religion, or anything like that here... we're talking about a joke about a hobby, or a perception of a person's looks. As well, it isn't like she's saying, "He looks like a nerd, I hate him!" or something like that.

    Would you really call this commercial "insensitive and intolerant?" You certainly have the right to feel that way, but I would call that ridiculous, and a cheapening of those words.

    I think (IMHO) over-reaction to things like this is a great example of how ridiculously sensitive we've become anymore. I'm from Nebraska - am I supposed to have my feelings hurt every time somebody jokes about me being a hick and living out on a farm? Should I get upset at the jokes I get for being a redhead?

    There are jokes that are meant to actually cause ridicule or insult, and there are jokes that are just jokes and nothing else. People really need to keep that in mind.

  7. Before I address the most recent comment, I think it's important to note that I am not utterly outraged by the Apple commercial (perhaps my post is too easily and mistakenly read as having an angry tone; at most, I was a little disappointed). Regarding the commercial, I simply think it was a somewhat distasteful, puzzling, and potentially unstrategic move on Apple's part, and I explained why.

    As far as insults and attacks on otaku go, I've heard far worse (in fact, I catalog them for my studies, and I've been following the usage of the term for over 10 years now), so a minor jab at otaku at the end of a computer commercial featuring dialogue that most of the intended viewers won't understand is not really anything otaku should worry about. I didn't, after all, ask anyone to boycott Apple or send them complaint letters. Given the vast misinformation surrounding the word 'otaku', or simply the different definitions people have adopted for the word, it is understandable and not at all unexpected when people use it in a negative manner (I think it's unfortunate, but certainly forgiveable in most circumstances).

    As far as I know, there has not been a huge outcry over this commercial, which is fine (the other article I reference here is getting far more attention). I keep track of things like the usage of 'otaku' in American mass media because it's part of a larger academic project, not because this single commercial is necessarily going to drastically change anything.

    Having clarified all that, let me address shidoshi's latest comment:

    Like I said, I don't know of any otaku/geeks who felt horribly offended or hurt by the commercial (Apple is lucky, so far). As far as insensitivity and intolerance go, I agree that it (the commercial) is very far from the worst, but I also think it's a mistake to avoid saying something is insensitive and intolerant just because something else is far more insensitive and intolerant. We do not need to reserve those two words to only describe outright hate speech and genocide.

    I don't disagree that the commercial is not a big deal (so far) in the overall scheme of things, but (as I mentioned before) I do disagree with your reasoning about why you think a) these types of jokes are justifiable, and b) those who feel offended by them are the ones in the wrong.

    While I sincerely think it's great that you're not easily hurt by jokes made about you, that doesn't mean that I ought to defend the people who made those jokes. Not everyone is as tough as you, and for those who aren't, ridiculing them for not being tough is one of the worst ways to make them stronger. While people might appear tougher after having endured being joked about, such joking (even when it's done without malicious intent) can cause long-term damage to their self-esteem, a common symptom of which is that they feel the need to ridicule others in order to feel better about themselves.

    In general, I don't think we (depending on who "we" refers to) have become overly sensitive at all, in America at least. This, of course, is part of the heated debate surrounding political correctness in this country. I know that debate won't be resolved on this modest blog of mine, so I'm not going to write a huge essay about it here. If you'd like to discuss this particular issue in more detail, feel free to send me an email (it's posted all over my website).

  8. What is pc guys real name. I think he is quite attractive, I like the nerdy look

  9. That would be John Hodgman.

  10. Interesting. Ironically, Lain was originally intended to be a discussion of American culture and Japanese culture taking on American values post WWII. I think, after reading the comments including the Japanese ones, this advertisement is precisely showing the gap.

    Even though Mac can speak her language and every other, supposedly alluding to that, values are lost. 'Otaku', as seen through Japanese eyes, seems to be different than what the Americans see as 'Geek'. If 'Otaku' is taken to refer to a group of people, then 'Geek' would refer to a style of people. I think it's pretty clear in American culture that style is everything, it actually becomes void of value (the '70's prositute fashion is currently the top seller in department stores for teenage girls-this is suppose to be 'cool'). What's interesting is that 'Geek' can be anyone despite their appearance, so the formal attire doesn't exclude that man from being a 'Geek'. Considering the visual division between the 'PC' and the 'Mac' i think it becomes even more clear. The 'Mac' is young and hipster/yuppy material (which most advertising is appealing to these days) and the 'PC' is the average unaware, middle-aged, white business-man that is currently losing the marketing ground these days. I think this is Macintosh's (the Americans marketing Macintosh) uneducated stab at Intel/Microsoft for not being on top of the technological changes.

    I have a friend who's father was hired by Microsoft to head new ways of Marketing and business planning, in a rather high position. Strangely he has no background in the tech field, what he does have is an alternative approach to marketing, he can find ways to appeal to the younger market. So this advertisement is getting at the lack of planning on Microsofts part when they knew the direction of Apple a long time ago. Intel/Microsoft is now just catching on.

    Those are 'Geeks'. Anyone who has seen the American '80's movie "Nerds" can understand this. They were the easily dupped, slow-on-the-comeback, and behind in style. Notice most American corporations are moving to a business/casual office attire scenario. Sure nuff, the 'PC' now becomes the slow on the punch, he hasn't caught on to the new style, the new technology, the new attitude.

    Unfortunately, these marketeers don't know how to do their homework. Actually, most Americans have no idea of the difference between the American's use of language and those of the rest of the world: a word is a word is a word. Not so...

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