Limbaugh could sell new Mac

This week, Apple Computer is launching a campaign to sell a new product, the $499 Mac Mini, that portends to transform the world in a way the original Mac didn’t. But Republicans will be needed for the campaign to succeed.This week, Apple Computer is launching a campaign to sell a new product, the $499 Mac Mini, that portends to transform the world in a way the original Mac didn’t. But Republicans will be needed for the campaign to succeed.

To put this in context, you need to read Revolution in the Valley, Andy Hertzfeld’s new book about the making of the original Mac in the 1980s. Hertzfeld points out that the initial target price for the first Mac was $500. But by the time it was launched in 1984, the price had ballooned to $2,495.

Many of the Mac’s creators felt betrayed. All initial design goals had centered on Everyman, but instead of a computer that changed the world, the Mac became a niche machine mainly for artisans and limousine liberals who could afford one. The rest of us bought commodity PCs. Fewer than one in 20 computers sold or used today to cruise the Internet is a Mac.

The Mac Mini could rectify this. But will it? Will a low price tag and terrific design alone entice a mass market to buy this new product? I’m not so sure. Apple’s image may still be an impediment to Mac sales.

To research this column, I read lots of discussion boards all across the Internet, and it’s evident that politics still play a role in computer purchases. Just as there are red states and blue states, there are also Mac Democrats and PC Republicans. These battles were especially nasty after Apple went public with its politics and added Al Gore to its board of directors.

Apple’s leader, Steve Jobs, seems to have sensed last year that his company was getting too “political.” He backed off some of his campaigning for John Kerry and cryptically signaled to The Wall Street Journal’s Walt Mossberg in an interview that he understands the problem.

“People have said that I shouldn’t get involved politically because probably half our customers are Republicans — maybe a little less ... [but] I do point out that there are more Democrats than Mac users so I’m going to just stay away from all that political stuff because that was just a personal thing,” Jobs said.

There are, in fact, devoted Republican Macintosh users, but that is not the perception. So Apple desperately needs to introduce a replacement image to achieve the original Mac’s vision. There would be no better way to do this than to add a Republican or two to Apple’s board of directors. Mac users such as Karl Rove or Arnold Schwarzenegger adviser Mike Murphy would be possibilities, but Rush Limbaugh is the most obvious choice. Rush is an ardent Mac evangelist and knows a thing or two about marketing. Even if Limbaugh is not put on Apple’s board, the company should market through his daily radio program, paying Rush to tout his favorite computer the same way he builds mattress sales for Select Comfort.

Hertzfeld’s book says the team that created the original Mac had a spirit of “urgency, ambition, passion for excellence, artistic pride, and irreverent humor.” That sounds just like Rush Limbaugh to me. I know that if Rush had been a board member in 1984, he’d have had the guts to back the famous Big Brother Super Bowl ad that Apple’s then-timorous board abandoned.

Apple marketers also need to understand that restoration of their brand’s image in conservative and Republican circles can resonate with various factions of the party. I have already read favorable gun-owner comments about the Mac Mini on the discussion boards of Ted Nugent’s populist United Sportsmen of America website. James Dobson and his Focus on the Family might be intrigued by a computer that is affordable for young families and not subject to porno pop-up ads. And business Republicans will be impressed by the seamless integration of the Mac’s OS X operating system with corporate networks.

The Republican Party is a big tent. Apple should come on in.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.