In September 2005, Steve Jobs gave his advertising agency, TBWA\Chiat\Day, an assignment: Come up with a campaign that clearly demonstrates the Mac's superiority to the PC. There was no deadline.
Seven months, dozens of tense meetings and countless discarded ideas later, the agency produced "Get a Mac." It would go on to become one of the most iconic ad campaigns in Apple's history, which is no small feat given competition like "1984," "Think Different" and "Silhouettes." Among those legendary ads, "Get a Mac" stands out as the most overtly comedic and one of the most expansive: The team shot 323 spots over three years, though only 66 ads ever made it on air.
To mark the 10-year anniversary, Campaign US asked members of the creative team, the crew and the actors to share the untold stories of how the campaign came to life. (Click here to read Part 1.) What follows is their recollections—inconsistencies, errors, biases and all—lightly edited and condensed for clarity. Click here to hear our podcast with John Hodgman, Justin Long and Jason Sperling.
May 2, 2006: The first spot from the "Get a Mac" campaign, "Better," airs in the US. It is one of eight spots that Steve Jobs approved out of the 12 that were produced from the first three-day shoot.
Jason Sperling (creative director): I was actually shocked at how much people liked it. I was like, it's cute and charming, but I was just amazed at how people thought it was brilliant. Barbara Lippert wrote such an epic write-up about it.
Justin Long ("Mac"): They were so ubiquitous. Before then, I had mostly been approached by college-aged kids, cause I had done more college-centered movies. But this was everyone, and it became very casual, I think because I was in their living room.
John Hodgman ("PC"): My mom has five younger sisters who all vacation together in Ocean City, NJ. I remember my family and I went to visit them, and my aunts were all like, "What is going on? Do you know what's happening?" I think that that was when it sunk in that millions of people were seeing these ads.
Scott Trattner (creative director): This is the earlier days of time-shifted TV, and I remember talking to a shrink, and he asked me what I do. "I work with Apple." He was like, "Those are the only spots that I don't fast-forward through."
Mike Refuerzo (executive producer): Once the spoofs came out, once it ended up on "Saturday Night Live," we knew we were in the culture.
Justin Long: Once, somebody just yelled across the street at me, "Computer!" They screamed "computer" at me.
Mike Refuerzo: Honestly, as soon they were on-air we were back in the writing room and we were writing furiously, planning for the next batch to come out.
John Hodgman: I thought that after the first round, it was done. And then when they brought me back for a second round, I'm like, "Well, I'm calling out all the stops and I'm going to ask them to put me in a even nicer hotel." Little did I know it was going to go on for three more years.
Danielle Kays (wardrobe stylist): After the first round, they said they were going to shoot a second one. I said, "Oh, we need to treat this like a movie." My assistants and I would photograph each outfit they wore in each spot, then put it on a page in a binder, and write down exactly how he wore it. "First two buttons unbuttoned, sleeves rolled two times," because a lot of times, we would have to go back and shoot it again, or they would want the exact same look in a different spot. We basically had a clothing bible.
Jason Sperling: The time on set was truly a love fest amongst the actors, the crew and the director. If anything I think the writers were the enemy.
Justin Long: They never knew exactly what Steve Jobs wanted. He apparently wouldn't see any of the footage until it was cut together. In some cases, they were rewriting so much that we started getting cue cards.
Jason Sperling: We wouldn't go to Steve and say, "Here are the scripts we're thinking of shooting." We would tell him the topic we were thinking about, or find out what topic he was thinking about, and then we would develop based on that.
Danielle Kays: They wouldn't directly reference Steve Jobs in our conversations. They might say, "Oh, he didn't like that shade of blue on the shirt," or, "He doesn't like flowers on a woman's shirt." I was led to believe it could be that small a detail that a commercial wouldn't air.
Maybe halfway into the campaign, Justin was like, "OK, I've done enough. It's the moment to be killed off or whatever they do in TV." — Scott Trattner
Phil Morrison (director): I might say, "Oh, what if we had this character wearing blank," and they'd say, "Well, you know, we learned that Steve doesn't really like it when characters wear blank." That's how I would learn of those notes.
Alicia Dotter (copywriter): You'd shoot 20 to get three. That was always a tough thing to do. Sometimes you get three and sometimes you wouldn't get any. Sometimes they would just be like, "No. None of them."
Phil Morrison: That's never how it works on a commercial shoot. Usually if a spot doesn't air, something went horribly wrong.
Jason Sperling: At some point we got to shooting about five a day, but the actors started to get a little tired.
Justin Long: I remember feeling ashamed and kind of guilty that I would be so tired at the end of those days. There are people who really work and do something with their hands, and here I was literally just standing with another guy and chitchatting, and I'd be exhausted.
Mike Refuerzo: I think we had one-year deals with John and Justin, and in the second year their contract said they wouldn't work past a 10-hour day, and they wouldn't work on weekends. I was like, "Thank you, because you're protecting us as well."
In late 2006, members of the creative team began traveling to the United Kingdom and Japan to find actors and directors who could reproduce foreign editions of the campaign.
Scott Trattner: We were on this crazy world tour. Me and Grunbaum and Barton and Jason were going around the world with this thing. Barton was incredible in Japan because he speaks Japanese. He played a big role in that. Picking the director, finding the cast. It was a trip.
Barton Corley (associate creative director): The Ramens were actually one of my favorite comedic duos in Japan, and I got the thrill of going out there to actually be in the meeting to ask them if they were interested in collaborating on the idea.
Scott Trattner: When Apple would dig some of the [American] scripts, we would develop those scripts for those markets. We really got to see how something really funny in the States might not be as funny in Japan. We would be adjusting on the fly and it was really organic, just changing things for countries. The themes were very much the same.
Jason Sperling: In the UK, they're very much into comedy duos, and these guys were known for a show called "The Peep Show."
Scott Trattner: Their show was sort of cultish. They weren't mainstream comedians, but they weren't so underground.
Mike Refuerzo: I don't know if the ads worked in their market so much, because in the UK we could only run them online. They don't allow competitive commercials on their TV.
Jason Sperling: I don't think it was nearly what it was here in the States. I think that's why it didn't last as long as it did, and also because I don't think Apple necessarily had the same market. We only did four rounds there.
Jason Sperling: We started to develop this cadence where you'd write the US, shoot it, and while you were shooting that you would start to get submissions for the Japanese or the UK, and you started shaping those scripts. You would go and shoot those and look at edits for the US stuff while you're starting to get the Japanese stuff ready. By the time you finished all the three regions, it was time to do the US one again. It was a constantly moving train.
January 2007: Microsoft releases the troubled Vista operating system, which quickly becomes a public relations nightmare for the company, and a rich source of material for the "Get a Mac" team.
Jason Sperling: I think the campaign would have ended probably a year or two years earlier had Vista not been such an absolute shit show. It was like one bad thing after another that just gave us so much fodder.
Alicia Dotter: We beat the shit out of Vista. It just kept messing up, and it was amazing. We drank the Kool-Aid. We believed in what we were doing, just calling out something that was definitely not well designed.
Jason Sperling: I think Steve loved it because he finally had a way to say all these things that were bothering him. Truthfully, he was like, "Why is it that people are using PCs? They're fucking horrible computers. This makes no sense to me." Who knows what kind of anger he had towards Bill Gates. We were the mouthpiece for it. But it was not what we intended the campaign to be, and I think the tough part is that we were all working under this assumption that he wanted to talk about the great things about the Mac.
As the campaign moves into its second year, guest celebrities become common on set. However, Steve Jobs approves very few of the spots they appear in, and most of the footage remains unreleased.
Scott Trattner: The beauty of working on that brand is that people are open to collaboration. People don't feel like they're shilling a product that isn't special. It was pretty easy after the campaign got off the ground to be like, "Hey, would you want to come and do a cameo?"
John Hodgman: We had Patrick Warburton playing the new model PC or something, and we had James Carville come in. We had Tony Robbins. I don't think the Carville or the Robbins spots ever aired.
Eric Grunbaum: [Reading from an unaired script]
There's Mac and PC, and Tony Robbins stands between them.
Mac: Hi I'm a Mac.
PC: I'm a PC. And this is my new life coach.
Mac: What? You have a new life coach?
PC: Well, you know, Vista was kind of a flop, and it had me pretty down, so Tony here is going to help me look on the positive side.
Tony Robbins: That's right, PC. We all have failures in life. When that happens, you've just got to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and find a positive.
PC: Well, I'm still being used in lots of offices.
Tony Robbins: There you go, that's great. But most of them are being downgraded to XP because Vista is so full of bugs and glitches. So how do we turn this into a positive?
PC: C'mon Tony. You can do it. Find the positive. Find the positive.
I think that was the idea. That's not a very funny script, so I'm sure we came up with something better. We often shot alternate endings
Zach [Galifianakis] has a very distinct energy. He was a very cranky Santa. — John Hodgman
Justin Long: About a month later, I got a package from Tony Robbins. It was an iPod, and I remember thinking it's very generous of him, but what a strange gift to give me. Wouldn't he assume I could get my hands on one? But he had programmed all of his stuff onto it. It was very kind of him. I never thanked him for that. Please quote me on that. I thank you, Tony Robbins.
Jason Sperling: We have a treasure trove of things that never aired. We had special guests like James Carville, Jenna Fischer, who was on "The Office." Jeffrey Tambor. Gillian Jacobs. God, there were so many.
Phil Morrison: It seems to me that it was pretty rare that one of the ones we did with a famous person actually made it to air.
Scott Trattner: When we would bring in actors, It was never to get more talk value or some virality out of it. It was honestly just sort of fun and to laugh. I think that era of advertising came a bit later where if you have Lil’ Wayne it has to have a certain amount of virality on YouTube.
Mike Refuerzo: Giselle was great. She was a pro. She was amazing.
Danielle Kays: I remember the fittings, of course, for Gisele. That was just nerve-wracking in general because of who she is. But she was great, and it was very easy and straightforward. She was lovely.
(L-R) Unidentified actor, Eric Grunbaum and Gisele Bundchen
Mike Refuerzo: Zack Galifianakis was a friend of Phil's, our director, and he came in to play Santa.
John Hodgman: Zach Galifianakis was in on the same day that the comedian Paul F. Tompkins was there, and both are comedic heroes of mine. Both were playing Santa Claus in two separate bits, and they obviously knew that they couldn't both be Santa Claus, so it was a little bit tense.
Mike Refuerzo: We were trying to do a holiday version. I think tonally it wasn't right.
John Hodgman: Zach has a very distinct energy. He was a very cranky Santa. I'm not sure that they knew exactly what to do with his very cranky, weird energy, which we now understand as Galifianakis at his best.
Justin Long: It was so fucking funny. He played a drunken Santa Claus, and it was before Zach was a big thing. I was a huge fan of his.
John Hodgman: I remember they were trying to figure out what to do about Zach's beard. They tried putting white coloring onto the beard to make him look like Santa. At one point, a suggestion started going around that maybe he needed to shave his beard, and I said, "Gentlemen, I must step in. You are talking about one of the most important beards in comedy. I cannot allow that to happen."
Zach Galifianakis as Santa in "Comedy Bang Bang"
Danielle Kays: I can't believe that one didn't air.
Jason Sperling: It was crazy. If Steve didn't like the spot, he didn't care if it was a big star. The only thing that mattered was that the spots were great. Some of them, you go, "Yeah, I could see why that never aired." Others you're like, "Oh, that was pretty good. That easily could've been part of the campaign."
Mike Refuerzo: We would often end up in meetings like, "That's funny, but it's not strategic humor." The laughter had to be centered around the message we wanted to communicate.
John Hodgman: They were all shot on film, not videotape. I remember they would take the film away, and I was like, "What's going on? What year is this?" You talk about wasting footage.
September 2008: Microsoft hires Crispin Porter + Bogusky to hit back at Apple with a series of TV commercials titled "I'm a PC." The spots are part of an ongoing $300 million campaign to promote Vista.
Eric Grunbaum: We saw the article in New York Times from Stuart Elliot, and we were like, "Wow"—it sounded pretty concerning. We forwarded it to Steve, and he simply wrote back, "Let's see the work first."
John Hodgman: I remember feeling surprised that Microsoft would take that approach. It seemed they had taken my little line very personally.
Jason Sperling: I would say the biggest sign of success, beyond the sales, was that Microsoft saw us as such a threat that they tried to turn our campaign around and use it against us.
Eric Grunbaum: Steve went into response mode. He thought that Microsoft was spending a lot of money on advertising but not spending money on fixing Vista's problems. They didn't even mention Vista in any of this stuff. After looking at 10, 20 scripts taking on the topic, a couple rose to the top.
Eric Grunbaum: We didn't want to get caught in too much inside baseball, two big companies spending money to pick on each other. We just put the argument back to Vista and the experience.
John Hodgman: I recall that the dude playing "me" was actually a Microsoft employee. Ultimately I felt happy that our work had made it possible for yet a second pasty non-actor to get work in a national ad campaign. It felt like giving back.
Jason Sperling: The coolest thing about this was we got wind from some casting agent that Crispin was looking for people named Steve jobs who used a PC, so they could do a "I'm Steve Jobs and I'm a PC" ad. I thought that was fucking brilliant. But it never came, I don't know why. Then lo and behold Taco Bell did that with McDonald's.
As the campaign wears on, Justin Long's concerns about coming off as a "pitchman," and the smug nature of his character, intensify.
Justin Long: The note they kept giving Phil to give to me was, "Be more excited about being a Mac. "I'm a Mac!" You know? Every time I'd say it, my fear was that I was that guy, "Hey there! I'm a Mac!" You know? "I'm that guy who sells this thing."
Eric Grunbaum: Justin may have struggled a little more with his role, not just as Mac but as a commercial actor. He had come from film, and I think it's understandable that you wouldn't want to be associated with advertising as a features guy.
Justin Long: Every time they gave me the note—and I'm not this kind of actor; I usually give myself over to any kind of notes and direction, but I knew that Phil was resistant to it, too, and I trusted Phil. They'd say, "More happier, more excited!" And I'd say, "Okay, got it. Hello, I'm a Mac," and I would just kind of introduce myself as naturally as I could. I felt very conscientious about protecting that delivery.
Jason Sperling: He would often fight it tooth and nail, sometimes even throwing the spot. He didn't want to make PC feel like an asshole or stupid or be mean or belittle him.
Justin Long: They started taking away a lot of the back and forth, because I resisted being belittling. That was the job for me, trying to undercut how inherently arrogant the guy is.
Jason Sperling: In one spot, PC's hurt because someone steps on his cord and pulls him off the table, and Justin Long thought it was pretty insensitive to just say, "Too bad you're hurt, but on Apple it's really easy." That was the refrain over and over again. As he had to describe products in more detail, he just was never comfortable. He wanted to have fun and be funny, didn't like the fact that PC got all the fun lines, that he was the more likable character.
Mike Refuerzo: John made a joke that he got to wear all he cool clothes, and I think Justin said, "At least you get to say all the cool lines." That's really what it was. Justin got to look cool and John got a lot of the more fun lines comedy-wise. We created that formula.
Scott Trattner: Maybe halfway into the campaign, Justin was like, "OK, I've done enough. It's the moment to be killed off or whatever they do in TV." He was a great dude and a great collaborator. I think he was concerned that people would only remember him as this role, and rightly so.
John Hodgman: I had no movie career. I knew what affect [the campaign] was having on my freelance writing career. It was happily obliterating it. I never considered leaving, not for a millisecond.
Mike Refuerzo: I think we were trying to convince ourselves that it was going to be OK. I wanted Donald Glover.
Scott Trattner: We did a pretty extensive search for a replacement. It got to the point we threw a goodbye party. Then, miraculously, he rethought it and was like, "OK, I'm in." It was great because we didn't know how it was going to land if we had lost him.
Justin Long: I still liked everyone, and it was still such an easy job to do, and it was one of those jobs, I don't know how much it affected my film or TV career, but it didn't feel like at the time that it had. Maybe in retrospect, it may have, but there wasn't a good enough reason to stop doing it. I think I'd still be doing it now.
2009: As the campaign enters its fourth year, the iPhone has become a bonafide hit, and rumors of an Apple tablet are growing louder. The "Get a Mac" team inevitably begins to wonder how much longer the campaign will continue.
John Hodgman: In year three or so, they did an ad where the PC steps into a time machine to see if he still has problems in the future, and of course he does. I step out of the time machine and I see a future version of me and Justin. I come out of the time machine—it's supposed to be a thousand years in the future—and I'm like, "You guys are still doing these ads?" I don't remember if it got a big laugh on set. But that was my big improv.
Danielle Kays: It was completely maddening after a while to have lengthy, lengthy discussions about blue or about a belt. It was maddening.
Eric Grunbaum: It became a little bit of a joke, like how many blue oxfords do we need?
Danielle Kays: After a few years of buying every piece of blue clothing in the city and having lots and lots of discussions about blue, or a belt, or the cut of a T-shirt, the producer came in one day and after a really long, grueling shoot, told me about the next job. I suggested to them that they hire my assistant and I went to Hawaii for a month.
Justin Long: There was a point at which it felt like, "We did that," and the writing became a little bit more pitchy, and it wasn't quite as fun.
I think the campaign would have ended probably a year or two years earlier had Vista not been such an absolute shit show. — Jason Sperling
Mike Refuerzo: We were on this constant rigor, writing, prepping, shooting, trying to align two celebrities. At the time, Justin was a movie star and John was trying to become more and more popular in the entertainment world. Trying to align both of their schedules, align with our director, who's constantly working. Then try to align that with topics that Steve wanted to get out in the world and booking celebrity cameos and prepping for 30-plus scripts, knowing that I'm only going to shoot 15 of them. I had to be prepared to shoot all these different scripts.
Jason Sperling: Steve's focus had shifted to the iPad, and his competitiveness had shifted to Google, not Microsoft anymore. We knew that the time had run its course.
October 2009 to January 2010: The final ad, "Teeter Totter," debuts, just as Apple's share of the US computer and laptop market hits 8.8 percent—double what it was when the campaign launched. In January, Steve Jobs will officially unveil the iPad, just as the team gathers for the final "Get a Mac" shoot. No spots from this round ever make it to air.
Jason Sperling: We did a round with iPhone, and Steve didn't want to run any of it.
Mike Refuerzo: The whole world started to pick up on the iPhone in 2009—the conversation frankly just changed. Apple was no longer the underdog. Tonally it didn't feel right for us to be doing those ads when the whole world was already converting to using Apple, which was our goal.
Jason Sperling: We did this farewell video that chronicled the entirety of the campaign. Three hundred and twenty-three spots we shot in total. We actually had done a couple long-form videos as well: music videos, benefit concerts. We did all these funny outtakes to go with it, and a lot of them are not exactly PC.
Eric Grunbaum: There is a lot of great Apple advertising, but I think Mac and PC was the best of Apple because it managed to do something that was completely surprising and unprecedented, yet at the same time, totally rooted in the brand and in the tradition and what makes Apple Apple.
What was really neat was that all of a sudden we became an agency that was laughing a lot. It was a very serious agency in that time, very serious. All we wanted to do was what was right by Apple. — Scott Trattner
Mike Refuerzo: Everybody who was involved in that campaign is just off doing different things now. I think it was a special group of people.
Scott Trattner: I have very bright brothers and sisters that are Harvard grads. I was always the black sheep of the family. It was like, "What's this dude doing in the corner painting?" I went to art school. To have helped birth something that had the cultural resonance that this had was reassuring. It's awesome. Like, "Wow. I can, in my own way, have impact on culture." That was meaningful to me.
John Hodgman: It didn't change my career, it changed the entire trajectory of my life, in a very happy and positive way. "The Daily Show" and then the Apple ads gave me a career as a performer, as an actor, as a comedian. Suddenly I had a new life on a much bigger stage that would allow me to meet my heroes, meet the President of the United States, meet George R. R. Martin. It was just the most startlingly wonderful time in my life, and has a legacy on my life that lasts until today.
Mike Refuerzo: As a producer, what I'm I most proud of is the body of work and the collaboration between everybody that was involved. There was a vision, and everybody was aligned into that. We knew the concept was strong and we knew where and how to push it to create something that would not only impact the business of Apple but culture.
Justin Long: I remember hearing certain cool jobs didn't want me because they felt like I was the Apple guy, certain "cool" directors. By the same token, that's how I got on Bruce Willis' radar for "Die Hard."
(L-R) Alicia Dotter, Eric Grunbaum, John Hodgman, Justin Long, Scott Trattner and Jason Sperling
Scott Trattner: What was really neat was that all of a sudden we became an agency that was laughing a lot. It was a very serious agency in that time, very serious. All we wanted to do was what was right by Apple. Then to all of a sudden hear people laughing out loud in the agency was really cool. James Vincent—he was the president of the agency—is an amazingly talented, bright person. He's British. To see that dude cracking up, it was awesome. That was something that I don't think Apple ever felt like they could be, a laugh-out-loud brand. To break into that a little bit felt really awesome.
Justin Long: I remember this feeling of it had gone on too long until it stopped. And then it wasn't enough.
John Hodgman: If it sounds like I'm at peace with the fact that it is over and I've now moved on with my life, let me assure you, I am not at all at peace. I would like to be working, doing those ads right now, and I want you to please call Jason and tell him. I am in wardrobe, ready to go, anytime.