Hype Sheet: Dell's Do-Goodism and the Axe Effect

The Pitch A Super Bowl debut we somehow overlooked, this Dell spot features a cast of thousands swarming around one lucky laptop owner. With an XPS M1530 tucked beneath his arm, our handsome protagonist goes roaming around the streets of a European metropolis, Mick Jagger's "Charmed Life" pumping on the soundtrack. The city's denizens hail his approach with cheers, butt slaps, and at least one passionate kiss, treatment usually reserved for sporting heroes rather than users of mid-range computing hardware. What has this shaggy-haired Everyman done to deserve such adulation? Well, that Dell of his is part of the special-edtion (RED) lineup, so $50 of his purchase price went to The Global Fund. A noble endeavor, to be sure, but (and excuse the ensuing crassness) will this good-hearted approach really help Dell move product? Read on for an answer, as well as a special "Making of..." clip.


The Spin Since Michael Dell returned to the helm a year ago, Dell has struggled mightily to rebrand itself as cutting edge rather than value-minded. On the product front, that's entailed everything from rolling out a worthy iMac competitor to veering away from lackluster AMD chips. But the more noticeable changes have occurred on the marketing side, where Dell has focused on creating glammed-up ads targeted toward the style conscious. (Hype Sheet previously swooned over the company's use of the Flaming Lips' "The W.A.N.D." in one great spot.) This (RED) ad, directed by the man responsible for Nirvana's seminal "Smells Like Teen Spirit" video, continues the trend. (See below for that promised behind-the-sceneser.) But Dell doesn't want you thinking they're just in the computer game to make cake—they've also got heart, just like fellow (RED) backers American Express, Microsoft, and (perhaps most notably) Apple.


Counterspin Cynics, including our tart-tongued droogs over at Consumerist, have raised some important questions about Dell's (RED) pricing scheme. The laptop featured in this ad, for example, costs $150 more than its plain-Jane peer, yet only $50 of that goes toward the Global Fund. The only spec difference is that the (RED) model runs a tweaked version of Vista. Is that really worth an extra $100? Or has Dell built in a way to make a little coin off consumers' best intentions? On top of that, the intersection between commerce and charity is always guaranteed to make some folks squirm—especially when the commerce part is far more visible than the end results in the developing world. Last year, AdAge controversially estimated that the (RED) campaign has spent more than its raised, a claim that elicited a strong rebuttal. Hard to tell who's right here without taking a closer look at the books, but Dell should realize that today's consumers are a naturally suspicious lot; you can't just say you're on the side of the angels and expect immediate praise.

Mission Accomplished? The spot certainly spurred a lot of Google searches, which was Dell's true aim—note how they leave the details of (RED) vague, and simply tease with the joinred.com URL at the end. Will that translate into gangbusters sales of (RED) XPS laptops and desktops? The hunch here is "no"—the price premium seems a wee bit high, and I trust that the majority of charity-prone consumers might prefer direct contributions (as well as their attendant tax write-offs). But even if you're an ultra-cynic about the commerce-charity meetup, you have to admit this is an effective ad—the do-good angle aside, it basically makes the XPS M1530 seem like the computing equivalent of Axe body spray. That's a pretty impressive image overhaul for a brand that, until recently, couldn't shake its rep as the Night Swept of hardware.

Hype-O-Meter 7.5 (out of 10). Yes, you can certainly question the sincerity of Dell's commitment to the cause. (And, please, do so in comments.) But this spot fits in rather neatly with the company's efforts to shed its Ben Curtis past.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired, a columnist for Slate, and author of the forthcoming Now the Hell Will Start. His Hype Sheet column appears every Thursday on Gizmodo.


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pshh... Why are you hating on Dell so hard?

The fact that they added (Red) to their products is a good thing no matter what the pricing scheme is. At least 33% of the added cost is donated; who knows how much Microsoft got, and then Dell is making a decent profit. This seems like simple economics where this product is supposed to be seen as an exclusive item and (Red) products are usually more expensive, so Dell can charge more. Apple seems to be an exception to this with their iPods, so I suppose they should be commended for that.

Anyways, I think Dell is doing a great job rebuilding their image. The new XPS laptops are getting great reviews with tons of happy customers, and the new latitudes (E-series and XT) look amazing. Mix in some fresh ads and you have enough ingredients to say they're doing a great job.