Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Two iPhones walk into a bar.
You say you’ve heard it? Like 3,000 times? And you can’t stand that creepy John Malkovich iPhone commercial?
Worst commercial ever, right?
Actually, there are two of them -- even more disturbing! In both, Malkovich sits at home -- relaxing, the way we all do, in a big empty-ish but devastatingly stylish house, wearing a shirt and tie and what appears to be a handmade linen suit. He gives his Apple-made inanimate inamorata one-word commands, yet is able to have a stunningly enjoyable back-and-forth conversation.
What’s most upsetting, though, is that in responding to Siri’s old tea-bag-weak “joke,” (or joke on a joke of a joke) Malkovich goes into serious paroxysms of laughter before she even gets to finish.
These are Apple ads? Given that the Malkovich spots follow in the footsteps of Samuel L. Jackson and (shoeless) Zooey Deschanel, it’s hard to believe that the master advertiser would stoop to using such a banal set-up: happy celebs dancing and cooking in their fake homes.
Here’s one obvious problem with using celebrities to sell Siri: We know that these stars normally employ a cadre of personal assistants whom they can boss around all the time. Who are they kidding? It’s the rest of us peons who need a virtual slave!
While the Sam and Zooey spots are merely surprisingly bad, the Malkovich one is evil and complicated in a deeply sleep-invading way.
Of course, the man who allowed himself to have his head occupied in “Being John Malkovich” has a history of playing sick meanies, and even has that “Mal” right up front in his family name. Jackson and Deschanel are shown at home alone, but they are perky, upright and moving around. Whereas Malkovich is seated, in his gentleman’s chair, in the shadows (although at times, the camera and sunlight are so close that we see a large skin tag on his eyelid. He should get that thing looked at!)
Do we think Malky really sits around in a formal (bespoke?) suit, listening to opera, being served by his female robot? (From an aria in Madame Butterfly, natch -- aka Glenn Close’s signature bunny-boiling music in “Fatal Attraction”!)
I guess the formality of the setting, and Malkovich’s clothing, is supposed to contrast with his ease (and joy!) in speaking with Siri. But there’s the other rub: he’s not asking whether it’s raining (Deschanel) or where to find organic mushrooms to put in his risotto.(Jackson.) Although in other, more questionable hands, Jackson’s question would sound deeply porny – a point we’ll get to soon. Nah, such earnest questions are cornpone stuff for Sir John. Rather, he ponders the meaning of life, and the degree to which he enjoys Siri’s answers is all out of proportion with the reality of her fractured platitudes.
It’s like cognitive dissonance: in our minds, we’ve been primed that the evil usually comes from the robot, as with HAL 9000 in “2001, A Space Odyssey. Here the roles are reversed, and we fear for Siri. Malkovich breathes deeply and snorts, like he’s gonna go postal or eat her or something.
But let’s get to his food porn: he asks for “linguica” which sounds X-rated enough, but is in fact a form of cured pork sausage. In reality, it’s modest Portuguese working-man’s grub, but sounds so incredibly pretentious and scary in his mouth that it set off my fight-or-flight response.
I will say this for Apple: I have found, historically, that their spots that I initially scorn or deride turn out to be brilliant. When the “Here’s to the crazy ones” came out, while I appreciated the cleverness, I thought it sounded way too self-congratulatory (Jobs and Gandhi, really?) And I didn’t like the way it made equal, empty commodities of very different kinds of icons: I’ll take your Lucille Ball and raise you an Einstein!
Except that the campaign turned out to be true. The end line was “Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world - are the ones who do!" And Steve Jobs certainly changed the world, in ways that would have been impossible to predict when that spot came out in 1997.
So I will admit, sheepishly, that I got so obsessed with the Malkovich spot that I actually went and upgraded my phone to see Siri in action for myself.
My first question: “Do you know John Malkovich?” Her answer: “This is about you, not me.”
Geez, a little snippy for the beginning of a relationship, I thought. But that didn’t stop me from asking personal questions, (or approaching her like a love-sick teenaged boy!) All dialogue verbatim:
“Siri, how did you get that name?”
“I was named by Apple in California.” she said.
I pressed on. “But why the name Siri?”
“I can search the Web for ‘But why the name Siri,’ if you like.”
“No. But what does your name mean?”
“I don’t think I can explain it in your language. Why does this concern you?”
Bitch-slapped by Siri. This was getting down-right HAL-like! ‘How old are you?” I asked.
“I don’t see why that should matter, Barbara.”
Desperate at this point, I asked, “Siri, do you like me?”
“I’d rather not say, Barbara.”
Wow, just what I needed -- another complicated relationship where the other being was saying, I need my space!
I wasn’t going to sulk, so I turned it around quickly, asking for the closest Walgreens.
Her answer was swift and perfect.
“Siri, thank you for assisting,” I said, while looking over the list of stores.
“Why, thanks Barbara,” she answered, and then laid it on a little thick: “Your satisfaction is all the thanks I need.”
Did the much-parodied John Malkovich commercial influence me to buy an iPhone 4S? Without a doubt, yes. It’s genius in getting under your skin, and making Siri her own weird celebrity.
And so far, I can say that the experience is far more interesting, and also disappointing, than I ever expected. As humans, we always expected that machines would eventually be capable of doing all of our work, so that we’d be free to ponder the important stuff.
Turns out that with Siri, we reached for the moon -- and instead got stars, asking for sausage.