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Apple’s ‘Thinnovation’ marketing strategy — and Air itself — troubling to some

Thousands of consumers drooled last month when Apple unveiled its new, ludicrously thin laptop. One local woman cringed.

The MacBook Air ranges from 0.16 of an inch to 0.76 of an inch thick on the hinged end, making it “nearly as thin as your index finger,” Apple’s website notes. It is “ultrathin” — so thin it fits in a manila envelope, as demonstrated in a TV commercial. The commercial features no narration and merely one fragment of text: “The world’s thinnest notebook.”

Steve Jobs’ company has emphasized the skinniness of its computers for some time now. Last August, it unveiled a 2-inch thick desktop, heralded by the slogan: “You can’t be too thin. Or too powerful.”

Apple has declared itself the master of “thinnovation.” (Head to your nearest Apple and you’ll see this word-creation plastered on the store-front window.) It troubles Shannon McCartney-Simper, manager of business development of the Eating Disorders Institute in St. Louis Park.

“My 12-year-old daughter and I were looking at the MacBook Air online, and the words right out of her mouth were, ‘Wow, look how thin that is!’ ” she said. “Of course that’s appealing to young people. It’s what they’re used to believing is the ideal.”

McCartney-Simper can’t help but consider the parallels between ultrathin computers and people who are striving to be ultrathin. “These laptops are really thin and portable — almost like you can hide them,” she said. “And then you take that to another level, and you think of how women so often want to hide their bodies.”

Is thinner happier?
To other consumers, she acknowledges, this message may seem subtle, if not a stretch. “But effective marketing is often quite subtle,” said McCartney-Simper, who plans to address the ad campaign in upcoming speeches around the Twin Cities.

What worries her most is the fact that Apple’s campaigns are clearly targeted at young people, who tend to be particularly susceptible to eating disorders. It seems to tie right into a major cause of eating disorders, as listed on the Eating Disorders Institute’s website: Sociocultural expectations of thinness and unhealthy body image. Magazines and television shows perpetuate the ideal of thinness and the notion, ‘The thinner you are, the happier you are.’ As teens overhear conversations about the newest diet, weight loss and negative body image, the real message continues to be, ‘A person’s physical appearance is more important than what is inside.’ “

The kibosh on the slogan
The slogan Apple used to herald its new iMac last August, “You can’t be too thin. Or too powerful,” didn’t last long.

On Aug. 7, a Mac-oriented blogger wrote a post titled, “Wanna take bets on how long before Apple is forced to pull this headline and apologize?” One reader wrote, “I say it is gone by tomorrow.” Others insisted the slogan should stay. 

Two weeks later, another Apple blog noted that the Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness had just issued a statement censuring Apple’s new slogan. “As not only the Executive Director of The Alliance, but also a recovering anorectic and exercise bulimic, I must say that I find the new iMac campaign troubling and extremely triggering,” said the Alliance’s Johanna Kandel in a statement, according to this post

By then, Apple had removed the slogan from its website.    

Looking for that deeper meaning
I tried to move beyond physical appearance and learn about the inside of the MacBook Air during a recent visit to the Mall of America’s Apple store. For a Sunday evening, the store was surprisingly crowded, the MacBook Air enticing many curious shoppers. “Look how thin this is! Crazy!” one young man gushed. “It’s pretty,” said another man, who appeared to be in his late 20s.

Once I made my way up to a MacBook Air on display, a young sales rep approached me.

“The commercials only point out its size,” I said. “What can you tell me about its features?”

His answer surprised me. He said the MacBook Air processes more slowly than any other Mac. Why? Its processor had to be shrunk by 60 percent in order to fit in the tiny frame, the rep told me.

Of course, it’s still very fast, he immediately added. And the screen is super bright. But a 60 percent smaller processor? 

In other words, contrary to Apple’s assertion, you can indeed be “too thin.”

This laptop’s skinniness comes at a high cost: $1,800 and slower processing.

Eating disorders also come at the high cost of slower processing — while reaping severe, often long-term health damage. It’s an unlikely comparison, but the parallel effects struck me.

Don’t judge a computer by its cover
One obvious difference, I realize, is that thinner laptops are more portable and weigh less (The Air comes in at 3 pounds, compared with 4.5 to 6 pounds for most laptops).

So I called a computer expert to make sure I wasn’t overlooking the improved usability of the MacBook Air. His answer surprised me, too. 

“Thickness doesn’t make much of a difference in usability,” said Matt Wash, web and media specialist at the University of St. Thomas. “You’re only eliminating one of three dimensions.” But, he notes, “It is lighter. If you’re carrying a briefcase all day, that decrease in pounds is certainly an advantage.”

Wash has no ax to grind with Apple. In fact, he’s a Mac user. But the MacBook Air doesn’t wow him. (See related story below for his reasons why.) Those who are impressed by it, he said, may want to reconsider their criteria.

“Many people are overestimating the importance of the thinness. That’s the only feature in a computer you can actually see, but that isn’t the factor that makes a difference in performance.  The most important features, when it comes to performance, are processor speed and memory.

“Thinner computers don’t manage heat as well so they’re typically not going to be as fast,” Wash added.

The distinction between a computer’s size and its performance reminded me of my mom’s longstanding distinction between appearance and character. And that age-old endorsement of the unattractive single friend: “She’s got a great personality.”

Apple is training us to trust face value, without digging deeper. “Seeing is believing,” it says.

But as for me? I want a computer with a great personality.

Airing some gripes about the MacBook Air
Web and media specialist Matt Wash identified these shortcomings of the MacBook Air in an e-mail:

1. You can’t change the battery. It may not be important for most folks, but if you’re trying to use your computer through a long airplane ride, swapping out batteries is a pretty important thing.

2. There’s only 1 USB port. That means you can only use 1 device with your laptop at a time.

3. The USB Port is accessible via a trapdoor and won’t sit flat on a desk if you’ve got a mouse, or anything attached.

4. There’s NO CD/DVD drive. Forget about installing software from CD or watching movies on DVD.

5. There’s no Ethernet port, which means if you still get your Internet from a network cable, you can’t get on the Internet.

It’s integrated the “Multi-Touch” capability into its touchpad — a technology that proved useful for the iPhone, but has yet to prove itself in the notebook market.

Points for a parent to consider

Shannon McCartney-Simper urges parents to address Apple’s ad campaign with their children. “As parents, it’s our job to look at some of these ad campaigns with our children and sit down and have a conversation,” she said. Questions to ask: “Why do you like that ad? What else is that ad saying to you? Is that ad talking to you just about computers? Why is being thin so important?”

McCartney-Simper reminds parents and young people alike to act on their indignation. “You have a voice. You can write to these companies and say, ‘Hey, I didn’t like your ad.’ Or, ‘This is how your ad made me feel.’ “

The eating disorder expert, a St. Louis Park mom, also recommends perusing, a website aimed at helping women and girls understand and resist harmful media messages about body image. It highlights “top offenders,” listing each advertiser’s address and phone number. 

Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Kevin Boggs on 02/21/2008 - 05:13 pm.

    This article is too early. April 1st is several weeks away. Oh…wait, were you serious? I guess those cold Minnesota winters must drive you a little crazy. Do you seriously believe that Apple’s advertisements and products would drive someone to anorexia or other eating disorders? I guess this shows the kind of ultra PC world we live in. Some folks will go out of their way to be offended. What if Apple made a big, fat laptop? I guess then we’d hear from the people who are overweight? What about other products? TVs are getting pretty svelte. And the Cooper Mini is positively lightweight.

    Now, as for the shortcomings of the Macbook Air, well they are pretty much the same shortcomings as any other subcompact notebook. In fact every notebook sacrifices some features for increased portability. A couple of your “gripes” are either misleading or just plain wrong. There is only one USB port but USB hubs can be purchased for a few dollars that allow you to connect additional devices. True there is no optical drive however you can buy an external drive or install software while connected wirelessly to another computer. (Mac or PC) On the odd occasion that you might need to access a wired network, you can also buy a USB attachment that allows you to use a wired connection. Your comment on “Multi-touch” basically implies that this form of interaction is new, thus it must be bad.

    The Macbook Air isn’t for everyone but it is aimed at a certain sector of the laptop market which demands ultra portability. In my eyes it meets these demands quite well. It does not, in my opinion, incite millions to put their fingers down their throats.

  2. Submitted by Maryn McKenna on 02/21/2008 - 07:20 pm.

    Sorry, this argument is too much of a reach for me. I’ve carried unwanted poundage most of my life; I understand the cultural pressure to be thin. I also – while recognizing its limitations – lust for a MacBook Air. But I don’t want it because it will by some magical transference make me feel thin. I want it because I’m a journalist who routinely has to schlep laptop, cables, locks, cameras and more on my back for weeks at a time, and anything that will reduce that load while running a superb OS is worth having. Sometimes a slender titanium case is just a slender titanium case.

  3. Submitted by Jane Greer on 02/22/2008 - 06:01 am.

    I heartily agree with the previous commenter. This article is an exercise in poor analytical skills. To claim that a thin computer is a negative occurrence makes no sense whatsoever. Nor does reduced weight in a device really have anything to do with eating disorders in humans. In fact, subcompact laptops are a boon to owners, particularly women, who tend to be of slighter stature than men. I bought my MacBook Air because it allows me to reduce the amount of weight on my shoulder and back from more than six pounds with my MacBook Pro to just three. I am sure that subcompact laptops are beneficial to the health of their users, whether they suffer from sciatica as I do or are taking preventive measures to avert shoulder, back and knee problems.

    The person cited as an authority is peculiarly ill-informed. The multitouch trackpad is an innovation that has become a selling point for the iPhone and is getting rave reviews from the tech press on the MacBook Air. There is no reason whatsoever to list it as a negative aspect of the MacBook Air. Nor are other of this person’s gripes show stoppers, as has been said. One can download media to the computer via Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or a brand new method of sharing the optical drive on any other Windows or Mac computer. A matching SuperDrive for the MacBook Air, which weighs only a few ounces, is also available for only $100.

    I certainly hope that Apple will not respond to a spurious attack on it from ‘fat acceptance’ activists. Trying to place responsibility for people’s dietary problems on a cool new laptop is blame-shifting at its worst.

    Sent on my MacBook Air.

  4. Submitted by Christina Capecchi on 02/22/2008 - 08:58 am.

    Thanks for the candor. I hear what you’re saying – honestly. In fact, that’s why the post notes at one point that this theory may seem like a “stretch.” (Or, evidently, a premature April Fool’s joke.) I, too, react strongly if someone is unnecessarily playing the victim. And I wholeheartedly agree: You cannot blame your MacBook Air for the fact that you eat too much pizza and never get on a treadmill.

    I was merely suggesting that Apple’s marketing emphasis on Air’s thinness – to the neglect of any other feature – could be troublesome to someone who is in a dangerous place, in terms of eating and body image. Let me be clear: Apple’s marketing does NOT cause eating disorders. But in some cases, with precarious young people and authoritative slogans like “You can never be too thin” from such a potent company, it just may aggravate them.

    Sometimes it’s good to look at situations from a different point of view, with a heightened sensitivity. That was the goal of this post.

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