Many years ago, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines commissioned market research to determine why it seemed to be winning less than its fair share of passengers. The researchers came back with the disturbing news that despite the airline’s exceptionally good safety record (this was before Gran Canaria), flying KLM was perceived in the public mind as anything but safe. The psychologists were called in and came to the conclusion that the descending wavy lines in KLM’s logo subliminally conjured the idea of crashing planes in the mind of the public. The logo was redesigned with the lines horizontal, and KLM has not looked back. IBM, however, has adopted a dangerous new angle for its logo, and Hesh Wiener is deeply disturbed at the implications of that and other advertising changes adopted by the company.
IBM has not only changed the hardware and software of its personal computers to create the Personal System/2, but has also completely replaced its old advertising campaign. The new symbolism of IBM is shockingly different. It reveals deep changes within the world’s most powerful computer company and portends great revolutions throughout computerdom. On Wednesday, April 1, the day before the scheduled debut of the new PCs, IBM bought full-page ads in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. The ads didn’t have IBM’s name on them. They reminded readers of the 1981 intro of the original Personal Computer and ended with the line Here we go again.
The allusion is to President Reagan’s admonition to annoying, persistent reporters and political opponents, There you go again. It was aimed at the cloners, of course, and other competitors that have gone after what IBM views as its turf. Whether that warning is any more than rhetoric remains to be seen.Since its PC first engendered competition, IBM has made several attempts to combat cloners, from Compaq to the Asian producers of generic machines. But IBM has been unable to stem purchases of PC look-alikes. The company’s chances are not necessarily any better now than they were when it tried to sell the world PCjr (which lost to Apple II machines as well as clones), its luggable (against Compaq’s successful line of portly portables), its Convertible (upstaged by Toshiba’s more powerful kneetop offerings), and its Topview program (overwhelmed by Microsoft’s Windows in the relatively small market segment interested in electronic desktops). So far, there’s precious little in the PS/2 announcement that can lock out competitors. The price, dhe performance and even the promised functionality of IBM’s new machines are merely extensions of trends that have gone on for the past seven years. Compounding IBM’s problem, of course, its its position vis-a-vis Microsoft. The source of the only aspect of the new PCs that might block clones – the operating system – makes more money from IBM’s rivals than from Big Blue. If OS/2 helps kill the cloners, it will wreck Microsoft. Bill Gates, sitting on a cool billion as a result of the IBM-clone wars, isn’t about to promote peace. He’s going to hold IBM hostage, and the clonemakers, too. The day after Here we go again made its way from the rhetoric of White House politics into the vocabulary of advertising, IBM’s regular ads hit the media. In the US, they no longer include Chaplin, and no longer have a rose. Instead, they feature most of the characters from the recently-killed M*A*S*H television series. (Alan Alda, the star of M*A*S*H, will probably join the ads as soon as his contract promoting other personal computers runs out.) Killing Chaplin and bringing in M*A*S*H is IBM’s way of shifting emphasis from the loner Tramp to the medical team of the TV show. This is in line with IBM’s new offerings, which feature greatly improved terminal functions. But M*A*S*H – stories from a field medical facility in the Korean war – is likely to backfire. Not only is IBM, like Uncle Sam before it, in a losing battle with Koreans, but the reference to a battlefield medical setting, where triage is the best that can be done, reveals IBM’s de
eper fears more than its hidden strengths. IBM, says the commercial, is in a star-crossed war, and the best it can do is perform makeshift emergency surgery on its PC line. Corporate users want a team approach, but they don’t want to be patients of the M*A*S*H clinic.
IBM no longer shows the Personal Computer with a single rose, a gentle, feminine and romantic touch that had been used in advertisements for years. IBM, like some paranoiac closet homosexual, has apparently decided to stay away from flowers, lest it be called a sissy. The company should have kept the rose, and perhaps shifted to a bouquet to symbolise the power of additive terminals that it so earnestly wants to provide. This symbolic loss of softness is truly the most disappointing aspect of the company’s new image. While trying to get PCs on the desks of secretaries, nearly all of them women, it will be selling from the decidedly passe position of a dominant male image, not from that of a feminine colleague. As a company that has prospered by leading its customers ahead, not by ordering them to proceed, significant damage may be done if the rose is not restored to prominence. If any serious rival can co-opt this symbol, IBM had better watch out. In particular, Apple, with its round and friendly name, may just have been handed thousands of desktops. Even IBM’s most powerful icon – it’s striped logo – has been altered for the PC push. Instead of taking its formerly stable horizontal position, it sits at a steep angle, reading upward from left to right. Does this mean IBM is no longer on the level? That it is ready for an uphill march? That it has grown bored with its image? There is nothing good to read into this, and a great deal that is bad. Perhaps somebody in Big Blue’s image department thought it would be good to give the users a surprise. Well, the company will soon find out that its customers want an IBM that is good at being IBM, and that they don’t want any more new angles than they absolutely have to live with.IBM is marching, with its M*A*S*H team, toward the front. And from here, it looks a lot like Waterloo.