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Today in Apple history: Brilliant ad campaign turns switcher into unlikely star

June 9: Today in Apple history: Ellen Feiss becomes an unlikely star thanks to Apple's Switch ad campaign June 9, 2002: Apple launches its “Switch” advertising campaign, featuring real people talking about their reasons for switching from PCs to Macs. Apple’s biggest marketing effort since the “Think Different” ad campaign a few years earlier, it turns 15-year-old high school student Ellen Feiss into an unlikely star.

She becomes a viral sensation after viewers suggest she was stoned during filming of her sleepy-eyed “Switch” spot about a homework-devouring PC.

Apple’s ‘Switch’ ads focus on real people

The effort to entice more people to switch from Windows to Mac came at a key time for Apple. Microsoft hit its financial peak a couple years earlier, before beginning a multiyear decline.

Apple, on the other hand, was enjoying a post-iPod period of sustained success. Suddenly, more people than ever seemed willing to try out Apple’s computers for the first time. This coincided with the Digital Hub strategy Steve Jobs laid out in January 2001. The strategy targeted the “other 95 percent” of computer users who did not yet own a Mac.

Using regular people in its “Switch” campaign was new for Apple. During the 1990s, most of its big ads focused on celebrity users of Apple products. Jobs enjoyed appealing to the aspirational demographic with this type of marketing.

But “Switch” established a formula that Apple continues to build upon. Recent efforts include its well-received “Shot on iPhone” ads.

The “Switch” campaign didn’t so much focus on the rebels, troublemakers and misfits as it did on … well, regular folks.

“These are not actors — they’re real people who have switched from PCs to Macs, telling their story in their own words,” said Jobs at the time. “More people are interested in switching from PCs to Macs than ever before, and we hope that hearing these successful switchers tell their story will help others make the jump.”

Ellen Feiss: Smoke different

For the campaign, Apple brought in Errol Morris, a highly regarded documentary filmmaker known for having interview subjects look directly into the camera lens when speaking. He employed this technique for the “Switch” campaign to make the ads feel more personal and authentic.

As a result, the ads felt like you were having a real conversation with a person about their reason for jumping to Mac.

Morris filmed a several “Switch” ads, including another one featuring Feiss in which she professed her love for her Power Mac G4. (That one never aired.)

Apple advertising has a lasting impact

Later ads in the series included celebrities as well. However, none made an impact quite like Feiss, who was a friend of Morris’ son, Hamilton Morris. In the ad, she tells a story of how her dad’s PC ate her homework.

Due to her demeanor, Feiss became an internet celebrity. One enterprising individual started selling unofficial “Smoke Different” T-shirts.

Feiss also got invited to be interviewed on TV by David Letterman and Jay Leno, while MTV talked about doing a pilot show. The Farrelly brothers — of There’s Something About Mary fame — even considered offering her a part in one of their movies.

Feiss turned down pretty much everything.

Apple reportedly wasn’t thrilled about the drug rumors. Feiss denied smoking pot in the one interview she did with a college paper. However, she did admit to being under the influence of something and “looking pretty out of it.”

“I think I look horrible,” she told The Brown Daily Herald. “It was after school, but I was the last person to make the commercial, so by the time I made it it was like 10, so I was really tired. The funny thing was, I was on drugs! I was on Benedryl, my allergy medication, so I was really out of it anyway. That’s why my eyes were all red, because I have seasonal allergies. But no one believes me.”

Switcher Ellen Feiss on internet fame

Five years later, after starring in indie short film Bed & Breakfast, Feiss told Macenstein that “being ‘famous’ in high school isn’t fun” and spoke of feeling “relatively powerless.”

“I got bitter pretty quickly,” she said of her Apple-fueled fame. “For some reason people lose their sense of what’s appropriate social conduct when you have any kind of celebrity persona. People would come up to me and say really rude things.”

In the end, though, she said most of her fans “turned out to be nice, intelligent Mac using people.” And despite some of the negative aspects of internet fame, she said she’d do it all over again.

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