John Loves Siri

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.


11 comments about "John Loves Siri".
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  1. Len Stein from Visibility Public Relations, July 11, 2012 at 10:57 a.m.

    Exactly, the WORST ever. almost made me buy an Android

  2. Ned Newhouse from Conde Nast , July 11, 2012 at 11:01 a.m.

    According to a Dr Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D. Siri's IQ = 88 (Low Average Range) That's weak and so is this product. Most important Siri is not intuitive and does not learn any personal nuances, inflection or become more intelligent as time goes on. She knows what she knows and that is the extent of her ability (at this point anyway). So I've moved on from her, not wasting my time asking direct questions. Now I use Siri for voice dictation for FB and email response. That's she does ~90% correct rate. However she still can't recognize and write my complicated 3 syllable name, instead writes "dad". That's lame for anyone, esp Apple!

  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, July 11, 2012 at 11:09 a.m.

    Your memory, observations and collaborations are incredible. Love everything you write. When bills are written in Congress, can you be editor to clarify and help them to connect the dots ? And yes, Malkovich has that special odd creepiness and Apple has exploited it for their own off the wall messaging whether everyone gets it or not.

  4. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, July 11, 2012 at 11:14 a.m.

    Aw come'on peeps. This is first generation, yet to evolve. Immediate gratification takes time. What did you do before Siri ? We talk to people with low IQ's, not intuitive without personal nuances everyday, twit twit, and don't even know it.

  5. Barbara Lippert from, July 11, 2012 at 11:29 a.m.

    wow, thanks, Paula! Not sure I'd clarify much in Congress, though! And yes, for most things, having Siri is like playing the old game of "telephone." By the time she recognizes the right word, you could have finished googling. Or it's like having a Magic 8-ball!

  6. Jack a. Silverman from Bolin Marketing, July 11, 2012 at 11:30 a.m.

    I had some fun duplicating Barbara's questions for SIRI to see if I would get the same answers. I love the part where she is not going to tell us her age, what woman really wants you to know that information!

  7. Catherine Wachs from Right Brain, July 11, 2012 at 11:47 a.m.

    I'm sad to see such vanilla advertising from a company that gave us a female renegade smashing big brother, Think Different and dancing silhouettes for the iPod.

    I see why they do simple, because the product is so revolutionary, but these latest ads are so un-inspiring as to make the product look like a toaster. Maybe that's the idea- an electronic household staple. But still, it would be nice to be wowed again.

  8. Marc Vesta from Shazam, July 11, 2012 at 2:34 p.m.

    Jobs rolled over in his grave when he saw those commercials. Worst ever.

  9. Barbara Lippert from, July 11, 2012 at 2:59 p.m.

    I had the same experience as Ned. once Siri gets a name wrong, there's no correcting it. You can't spell it out.
    When I first saw Zooey and Sam, I thought they must have been made by Verizon.(They are self-parody!) And so is Malkovich-- hit you over the head Malkovich. But the point I was trying to make was much as I consciously hate the campaign, Malkovich worked on me!

  10. Jonathan McEwan from MediaPost, July 11, 2012 at 6:11 p.m.

    I personally hated the ads with the celebrities. I assumed they were produced by Verizon, since they lack the normal Apple panache. As for the Siri one-word commands that Malkovich utters, I asked all those questions with more words over and over again when the 4S first came out and there have to be about a dozen answers, for the meaning of life, a few different things for jokes and stories. It was a lot of fun to play with for a while. And other statements and questions yielded interesting responses. Swear and she'll chastise you. Asked what she was wearing, she warned me she was "not that kind of personal assistant." After the Malkovich ad came out some friends and I tried one wording the questions, and sure enough we got the various answers we had gotten before for full-sentence questions. So it wasn't a lie what happens in the ad. However, the acting and set dressing in all of them were atrocious. As for mishearing and correcting, Barbara, next time you ask Siri for something and you see it pop up written incorrectly in the little grey speak bubble, touch it with your finger, highlight the misinterpreted word and retype it. You can fix it. But you have a short window of opportunity right after the interpretation is presented to you on screen. Hope that helps. On the name front, though, I also found it amazing that it knows celebrities' names pretty well. My favorite question for some reason (maybe it's just the age I am now) is "How old is Jessica Lange?" "How old is Roger Federer." And so far, she always gets the famous people's names right.

  11. Barbara Lippert from, July 11, 2012 at 6:20 p.m.

    @JM:LOL! Actually, one thing I forgot to add: I asked Siri for Linguica and she pronounced it LinguiKA. I wonder if they changed it for the spot?

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