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Apple’s Ads: Why Not Fact Check Dell Too?

I don’t take TV ads very seriously. Some are mildly entertaining. Except when I’m watching a live broadcast, however, I’m too busy whizzing past them with my DVR’s fast forward function. Unless the claims are overtly bogus, rather than just mildly questionable, I don’t give them much attention.

But this doesn’t happen if you’re Apple Computer and your every step is put under the microscope. Poor Steve Jobs must sometimes think he’s put in the same category as the President of the United States rather than just another CEO, because he can’t do or say anything without lots and lots of second-guessing.

So when the “Get a Mac” ad campaign debuted, and everyone (including this site) began to talk about it, it was only a matter of time before someone got the bright idea to really make an effort at fact checking. Understand that if Apple did overemphasize a point to make a sale, it won’t wreck your life, or your finances. It’s a personal computer, not a drug with a thousand and one side effects, or an auto that, lacking side curtain air bags, may be more susceptible to harming its occupants in the event of a crash.

But I should give PC World’s Harry McCracken his due. He did take his quest seriously, and thus subjected Apple’s new spots to a fairly extensive degree of examination in a recent article. Better him than I.

Before getting to the point, McCracken spends several paragraphs reviewing the quality of the ads before he gets to the actual claims. As far as the latter is concerned, Apple seems to fare well as purveyors of TV ads go. While the accuracy of some of the claims may be “vague,” he points out that Apple attempts to back them up at its site with additional information and declares it “a pretty good overview of points in the Mac’s favor.”

So far so good. But would a computer magazine render the same treatment on ads from other PC makers? Shouldn’t their claims, whatever they may be, be given similar levels of scrutiny? I mean Apple wants to put itself in the same league, so fair is fair, right?

Well, this creates a larger problem, because PC companies are circumspect about making overt claims, except for the specifications they share with the competition. Dell may, for example, tell you how cheap its entry-level boxes might be, but it doesn’t actually say those prices are less than, say, HP or Gateway. It might be inferred, but the scripts went through the appropriate level of review from the company’s lawyers, and hence are meaningless.

The one that may, on the surface at least, seem misleading is the one about Dell’s 24/7 support. Yes, it’s true, but that has nothing to do with the quality of help you get if your Dell PC is misbehaving at three in the morning. Notice, they make no claims on that score, which is good, because they’ve had technical support problems in recent years. That’s one of the things they vow to address as they try to repair slowing growth.

So far, there’s not much meat for McCracken and his PC World colleagues to explore. Then there’s that dumb Gateway ad where people carrying cartons containing computers are sprinting through a field. The company’s ad agency no doubt felt it was conveying a message when the campaign was greenlighted, but it escapes me, beyond the impression of being especially dumb.

Of course, when one PC maker is selling essentially the same commodity product as dozens of others, it’s really hard to do much to distinguish itself. For the most part, I bet a large portion of the audience actually thinks the ads are all done by Intel, since its logo appears at the end, the better to claim those co-marketing dollars.

Companies that make soap or laundry detergent actually fare better because, based on tests from such resources as Consumer Reports, some are truly better than others. Ditto for washing machines and air conditioners. I don’t need to mention autos, where there are tremendous quality differences from one model to another. If you can’t push quality, you just tell the prospective mark, I mean customer, how much of a bribe you want to give them to take delivery of your product.

In the scheme of things, however, Apple is a rare breed as advertisers go. They are actually making factual claims, and it appears they are largely correct, even if you have stretch a bit to reach that conclusion. That’s something good, right? I’m just wondering.