In the late nineties, Apple looked doomed. As flop followed flop, the company found itself written off by tech and business experts alike. From the brink of bankruptcy, their ascent to becoming the most valuable corporation in the world has been nothing short of astonishing.
A lot of people attribute this to the return of Steve Jobs – a man who, since his death in 2011, has become something of a millennial messiah. Apple, they say, owes everything to his indomitable spirit, business acumen and hunger for innovation.
But people who are truly in the know understand that this is nonsense. Those that have been paying attention will tell you that Apple’s mercurial rise is actually down to one short advertising campaign – or rather, one Long man.
This is Justin Long.
And this is his untold story.
Allow us to cast your minds back to the halcyon days of May 2006. Steve McClaren had just been appointed England manager (for some reason); Sandi Thom dominated the airwaves with ‘I Wish I Was a Punk Rocker’ (for some reason), and Apple was gearing up for an audacious new advertising campaign.
The previous year, sales of Apple machines had dipped dramatically. In response, the Cali tech giants pinned all of their hopes on the controversial ‘I’m a Mac’ series.
You remember the adverts, right? They featured Justin Long, playing a Mac made sentient and hairy, archly mugging off his dull PC counterpart. Have a watch below:
The message was clear: Macs are for hip, beautiful young creatives, and PCs are for fuddy-duddies in bad suits who get their rocks off to Excel spreadsheets.
In any others actor’s hands, this kind of preening bullsh*t would come across as spiteful, smug and ageist. Instead, carried by the relatable charisma of Justin Long, ‘I’m a Mac’ became the battle cry of a generation.
One month after the advert’s airing, Apple saw an increase of 200,000 Macs sold. By July, they had shifted 1.3 million. Over the next decade, growth in sales of Apple Macs surpassed PCs year on year. In one short campaign, a behemoth was born.
The years haven’t been quite so kind to Justin Long, however.
Prior to becoming a living, breathing, smirking OS, Long had won critical acclaim in a steady stream of commercial successes. From his debut in 1999’s Galaxy Quest, to star turns in Jeepers Creepers, Dodgeball, and Idiocracy, Long was Hollywood hot property.
Then the Apple commercial happened and, on the crest of its wave, Long bagged his biggest role yet: as Bruce Willis’ sidekick in the long-awaited sequel Live Free Or Die Hard. Critics lavished praise on the film and his performance, nominating him for the Saturn Award for Best Supporting Actor.
Long had finally made it.
Except, not quite. Do you want to know his highest-grossing movies since that release? 2007’s Alvin & the Chipmunks; 2009’s Alvin & the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel; and 2011’s Alvin & the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked.
Besides a role in meh-mustering romcom He’s Just Not That Into You, Long’s post-Apple career has been spent mainly on the periphery or, in some cases, the deleted scenes.
People will point to the myriad actors who promised so much but achieved relatively little. They’ll also argue that successful commercials create a credibility dent that can never be fully popped out.
But there’s more to it than that.
Steve Jobs handpicked Long for the role on the basis that he looked like a younger version of himself. As you can see from the picture below, this is not exactly true.
But if his choice was fuelled by vanity, it’s understandable. Justin Long is a chill guy, especially in the fashion stakes. It was a look, and a personality-type, that young people aspired to.
Casual, unpretentious, cool – a perfect style icon for a recession generation who could only afford to buy into an idea. And what an idea it was.
Jeffrey Nevid, a psychologist from St Johns University, has studied the Apple phenomenon, and posits: “They (Apple) have been able to reach a segment of the market that looks at a Mac and thinks: that's me. That's something we don't find with PC users. PC users might like their computers, but they don't look at them and say: 'That's me.'"
Apple transformed its young customers into Justin Long, and as a result, Justin Long became lost in the crowd. Justin Long became everybody, and nobody.
And it’s not just the public who wanted to replicate his understated charm. Many other Hollywood actors looked to trade off of his hip schtick too, stealing many a tailor-made role from him along the way. Can you honestly say that Joseph Gordon-Levitt is not just Justin Long with a better wardrobe department? No. No you cannot.
Imagine, for a moment, that it was Justin Long clamoring after Zooey Deschanel in 500 Days of Summer. That it was Justin Long gearing up to star in his own Christopher Nolan-directed superhero blockbuster. That it was Justin Long who, for once, got to play himself.
The world would be a very different place, that’s for sure,
It’s telling that Long’s biggest roles since have been as a voice actor. Is it because a live-action Justin Long acts as a mirror to the world? An uncomfortable reflection of how our sense of self is tied up with loyal consumerism and jealousy?
Yes. Definitely, unequivocally yes.
If Steve Jobs is a God for a world of techy, aspirational rollneckers, then Justin Long is their Jesus – destined to roam the Earth ignored and derided by the people who share in his own blood.
But will he rise again? That all depends: are we able to separate the Mac from the Man? It might be too late.
Maybe he should have got a PC after all.