This ad is incredible, but is that a good thing?

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I think the Mac ad running on the front of the Wall Street Journal and New York Times (and perhaps others) websites today is the most brilliant online advertising I’ve ever seen. (I also think it’s mean-spirited and insincere, as well, which I mention below — but that’s not the focus of this post.) Hands down, it beats any interstitial ad I’ve ever seen — primarily because I’ve always clicked on the “skip this ad” whenever I’ve seen one. It also beats any “rich media” play-with-a-pencil ad. It beat ads that fly-over editorial content. It beats anything that blocks editorial content. It beats any YouTube “user-generated” ad for that matter. It’s incredible. Most incredible, however, is that it is running on the front page of the Wall Street Journal & New York Times websites.

Apple has a long history of redefining what an ad can be. And by ad, I’m talking about the good-old-fashioned paid media kind of advertising where an ad-buyer purchases space or time to run (or insert) some “creative” that is created by some people called “creatives.” I’m not talking about new notions of marketing that focus on creating products that people talk about and calling that “the thing formerly known as advertising” (although I’m a big believer in that, also). In this case I’m talking about the thing formerly known as advertising that is still advertising.

Ask most people what the greatest ad of all time is and they’ll tell you, the Superbowl ad called “1984” that introduced the Mac. But hey, let’s don’t ask “most people,” let’s just google the phrase greatest ad of all time and see what happens.

While Apple and others have created and run “rich media” non-traditional size online ads before — even on the WSJ.com and NYTimes.com websites, I believe the one appearing today on WSJ.com is breaking new ground, 1984 style. Here are a few reasons why:

1. It’s incredible that it’s running on the front of WSJ.com with nothing that labels it as an ad. The ad’s headline is in a little ruled box, but it’s in a font that is extremely similar to the actual headlines on the page. And while the same ad is running on the front of the New York Times website, the ad actually has a “Wall Street Journal” attribution on the headline (it’s covered up in the scan above, however). Of course, it’s obvious to you and me and probably 99% of the WSJ.com and NYTimes.com readers that this is an ad, but if this had appeared in a magazine, well, let’s just say it would have at least needed some clarification or a major ASME bruhaha would be taking place today.

2. This ad proves that the web is not just about “search” advertising: This is brilliant brand-marketing creative. Some of the most effective ever. It’s pretty brilliant product advertising, as well. The fact that I think the campaign is mean-spirited and not accurate is beside the point. It’s so good that it became a part of pop culture — and very few ads do so anymore. (While it’s another point, the TV versions of these ads are perhaps the only advertising that my DVR at home is used for “ad-rewatching” rather than ad-skipping.)

3. This ad demonstrates that brilliant advertisers can actually understand the whole cross-platform, synergistic, multi-media advertising idea that’s been the holy grail of media companies for the past decade: Perhaps it’s because their products jam the halls of every magazine publisher in America, but Apple has never stopped advertising in magazines. It’s hard to pick up a consumer magazine without an iPod or iPhone ad in it. When it comes to TV advertising, Apple is ubiquitous these days. With the co-op dollars they’re getting from AT&T, they’re carpet-bombing NFL football with iPhone ads. This “I’m a Mac” campaign is hard to miss, as well. Except for Nike, I can’t think of an advertiser who has used outdoor or transit advertising more effectively than Apple. And online, they are now setting the mark. Most importantly, each execution reinforces the other.

4. It’s not just about great products: As much as I love Apple products, they are flawed. Leopard is flawed. I know that for a fact. I have 25 Macs I’d like to upgrade to Leopard, but can’t because of some glitches it has with some software that is critical to our business. Yet there is a notion that Apple spends money creating great products so, therefore, it does not depend on advertising as much as companies that don’t create great products. The fact is, they create great products that are designed beautifully, have better-than-competitor usability and support the launch and marketing of those products with brilliant advertising — the kind that gets people to stop in their tracks and write posts like this.