Where’s the Mac? Will the web make a star of Ellen Feiss?

Slurring students gets instant cult status from Apple web ad.

National Post, September 16, 2002   

Ellen Feiss seems on her way to being the biggest television commercial star since Clara Peller, and her spot hasn’t even been broadcast yet.


Clara Peller was the elderly woman in Joe Sedelmaier’s commercial for the Wendy’s hamburger chain in 1984 who demanded to know, “Where’s the beef?”


Ellen Feiss is one of the “switchers” in Apple’s current campaign. The spots — 12 in all — were shot by documentary filmmaker Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line, Mr. Death, and Fast, Cheap and Out of Control). Each features a real person — not an actor, Apple says — talking directly to the camera in front of a white background about switching from a PC to a Macintosh.


They include David Carey, publisher of The New Yorker, DJ Liza Richardson, and Windows LAN administrator Aaron Adams.


But nobody seems to have prompted as much of a reaction as Ms. Feiss, a 15-year-old student who emailed Apple a 21st-century twist on “the dog ate my homework.”


Her father’s PC devoured a term paper. That meant a rushed rewrite. “I blame the PC for the grade I got,” Ms. Feiss wrote.


Her recounting the mishap in the commercial, however, adds some elements that email can’t convey.


“It was, like, beep, beep, beep, beep, bee-bee-bee-beep,” she says, describing the moment the paper disappeared. “I was, like . . . ‘uhnh?’” She characterizes the entire experience as, “kind of [pause] . . . a bummer.” (See the commercial at http://www.apple.com/switch/ads/ellenfeiss.html. You’ll need Apple’s QuickTime player, which you can download free.)


The ad’s introduction at the MacWorld New York conference in July started a lot of buzz in Internet chat rooms, as well as the inevitable debates between PC partisans and Mac loyalists.


“I’m confused by Apple’s latest ‘Switch’ campaign,” one poster wrote on the MetaFilter discussion board. “So far I’ve seen a freelance writer, a DJ, a producer of ‘new media’ and now this stoned chick. It was my impression these were demographics Apple already dominated.”


Others seem to have reacted in much the same manner as the people who set up the fan sites. “We love Ellen” and “You go girlie girl” are among the comments posted at one of them, along with declarations of eternal devotion.


Several suggested Ms. Feiss was Mac’s answer to “Steven,” the character whose “Dude, you’re getting a Dell” mutated from being a commercial tagline to becoming a more widely applied expression of approval about six months ago.


The question of Ms. Feiss’s red eyes and meandering speech is also a topic of debate.


Many suggestions are offered for her appearance and manner. Some — teachers and parents among them — say that’s the way all teenagers talk. The inflection in Ms. Feiss’s sign-off at the end of the commercial seems to support that theory: “I’m Ellen Feiss? And I’m a student?”


Apple won’t say much more than that about her. Ask about anything regarding the commercial or the campaign, and you feel like you’re harshing somebody’s mellow.


“It’s our policy not to comment on any of the commercials, the people in them or how they were made,” says Apple media relations spokesman Lynn Fox.


The company won’t comment on the fan sites, the discussion boards, or the proliferation of merchandise — clocks, T-shirts, mousepads, flying discs and coffee mugs — that bear Ms. Feiss’s image from the commercial.


And forget about talking to Ms. Feiss or her family. Apple maintains that the Feiss family is on vacation all summer and can’t be reached.


Kind of . . . a bummer?