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April 24, 1999
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Apple's Samuel Beckett ad unsavoury at core

[Theatre - By Vit Wagner] I am staring at the back cover of the May issue of Harper's magazine. Peering right back at me, through wire spectacles, is the playwright Samuel Beckett.

The great writer's penetrating, unknowable expression is framed by a furrowed brow topped with a cropped tuft of wiry black and gray hair.

It is a wonderful photo, really. And, yet, I cannot but wonder how Beckett, were he still with us, would feel about being cast in the role of pitchman for Apple Computer.

Maybe he would simply shrug and say: ``Nothing to be done.'' But the intensity of his look suggests otherwise.

The portrait is part of the company's ``Think Different'' push, itself part of a widening ad industry campaign to involve famous dead people in the business of selling stuff.

[photo]
SAMUEL BECKETT: Portrait is part of the Apple company's ``Think Different'' push.

The Beckett ad is a marvel of concision. Apart from the slogan, the company's familiar logo and its web address, the only words (in fine, legal-size print) are: ``1999 Apple Computer, Inc. All rights reserved.'' The ad also contains three separate copyright and registered trademark symbols, establishing the company's exclusive rights to its name, slogan and logo.

Beckett's rights, apparently, are not an issue. Even so, his inclusion in a campaign of this sort seems especially perverse - more so, say, than the use of Albert Einstein, whose frizzy-haired visage is also being put to the same end.

It is unlikely that the author of Waiting For Godot, Endgame and other masterworks of the 20th century stage would be flattered to learn that his image still retains iconic value 10 years after his death. An intensely shy and private person, Beckett had no interest in celebrity, least of all his own. Upon winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1969, he not only skipped the ceremony, but fled to Tunisia to avoid detection.

Then there is the product itself. It's possible, I suppose, that Ernest Hemingway, who has a cameo in a current campaign for Mercedes Benz, might have harboured a fondness for German luxury cars, even if boats were more his style.

Beckett's potential affection for the personal computer can only be conjectured: he died just as the computer was on the verge of becoming an accoutrement of middle-class life. I'll stick my neck out and say he would have hated it, not only the technology, but the entire culture it has spawned.

Famously fond of silence, Beckett complained the world was polluted with meaningless blather. He even referred to his own writing as ``a stain upon the silence.''

And what, when you come right down to it, is the World Wide Web but a limitless conduit for meaningless blather? Useful as the Internet can be, much of it is a dumping ground for advertising, self-promotion and dubious treatises on dubious subjects by authors of dubious authority. Blah. Blah. Blah.

It's a stretch to imagine Beckett, who wrote much of his work by hand, going online or, reclusive as he was, using the computer to play solitaire. The modem's squawk alone would have sent him searching for an empty bench in the park.

This isn't the point, in any case. The purpose of the ad is not to link Beckett with computers. Nor, presumably, is it an attempt to draw a line between the product, the consumer and the personal quality to which Beckett attributed his success as a writer: ``an intuitive sense of despair.''

It's intelligence that's on offer here. ``Think different.''

As a symbol of genius, Beckett is the bridge between the brains at Apple and the smart, discriminating Mac user. While the ad might not flatter Beckett, it nudges and winks at the consumer, not only for recognizing Beckett (many wouldn't), but for comprehending his exalted place in the cultural scheme of things.

Beckett is us? Yes and no, but certainly not in the way the ad implies.

Apple's use of Beckett's image as a marketing ploy will probably strike many as little more than a lark. Another ``Whatever.'' But there is something unsavoury in violating his privacy, just because he isn't around to weep.

Not that Beckett held out much hope for a satisfactory afterlife. ``Even death is unreliable,'' he said. ``Instead of zero it may be some ghastly hallucination, such as the square root of minus one.''

That's our Sam, thinking differently.

[Speak Out]

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