Few ad campaigns in recent times have been as memorable as the "Hello, I'm a Mac, and I'm a PC" series from a few years back. The ads showed Justin Long as the hip embodiment of Mac users and John Hodgman as the stiff personification of PC folk. Never mind that Hodgman is unquestionably cooler than Long; the point of the ads presented viewers with a question put best by Seth Stevenson at Slate: "Would you rather be the laid-back young dude or the portly old dweeb"?
At its core, the campaign suggested that people who buy Macs have fundamentally different personalities than those who prefer PCs. But there's a long history of evidence failing to find any meaningful personality differences between users of competing brands. One review from the 1970s reported that the majority of studies revealed a weak connection between personality and consumer behavior at best, and in some cases none at all.
With that in mind, psychologist Jeffrey Nevid of St. John's University recently wondered whether the personalities of Mac and PC users really differed as much as the ads would lead us to believe. Since each incoming St. John's student can purchase either brand with the cost added to tuition, he had a natural study sample. So Nevid and doctoral student Amy Pastva gave personality questionnaires to 108 students and searched for any link between personal traits and choice of computers.
The results undercut the entire Mac-PC narrative: Nevid and Pastva found no significant differences between computer users on the classic Big Five personality traits. "You couldn't pick them out or discern one group of owners from another based on personality," Nevid tells Co.Design. "So there is no Mac personality so far as we can tell, or PC personality."
What the researchers found instead was perhaps more interesting. In addition to studying connections between self-reported personality traits and computer brand preference, Nevid and Pastva used the Implicit Association Test to identify any unconscious attitudes that might exist without people realizing. The test measured reaction times to images of Macs and PCs when paired with various categories, such as self or other; the quicker the reaction, the stronger the underlying bond.
At this deeper level, Mac users identified much more closely with their computers than PC users did with theirs. Simply put, when Mac users saw images of Macs they felt a connection to them that didn't exist as strongly for students who owned PCs. Nevid calls this a clear sign of an "I'm a Mac effect": an automatic tie to the brand that's rooted in something more than mere personality traits.
"Some way or another Apple was able to create style, pizzazz, and image that connects at a deep level with consumers," Nevid says. "Not all consumers, but certainly they have been able to reach a segment of the market that looks at a Mac and thinks: that's me. That's something we don't find with PC users. PC users might like their computers, but they don't look at them and say: 'That's me.'"
In fact, some PC users even think "that's me" about Macs. Just as Mac users held a positive bias toward Macs on the Implicit Association Test, PC users betrayed a modest (though statistically negligible) one, too. So they too identify more strongly with Macs than with PCs, even if for other reasons they select a PC in the end. Those reasons might include usability, cost, or gaming, but they don't include style or youthful appeal—where Macs bested PCs among all test participants.
"That suggests to us that the Apple marketing campaign has permeated the psyche of today's youthful purchasers," Nevid says. (Full disclosure: Nevid spoke to Co.Design on an iPhone, but says he uses a PC.)
Which would help explain why the Mac-PC campaign remains so memorable nearly five years after it ended. Brands are considered more fragile in the information age, but as the New Yorker's James Surowiecki recently pointed out, they retain power "where the brand association is integral to the experience of a product." That integral experience is exactly what Nevid's research reveals: Rather than sell Macs to certain consumers, maybe these ads wanted to sell everyone on a Mac way of life.