A Brief History of Jeff Goldblum as Our Quirky Tech Pitchman

Somehow, the guy who played "The Fly" became the most reliable (and most drunken) tech pitchman.

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Oct 6 2014, 10:00am

Goldblum gets his Tim and Eric close-up. Image: GE

This strange new GE lightbulb ad starring Jeff Goldblum has become the talk of the internet. Which is exactly why comedians Tim and Eric were hired to direct it.

Forget about smart light bulbs or that fascinating transition at 1:41. To understand anything about the Jeff Goldblum-Shilling-Technology Phenomenon—to understand something about Where We Are Now—you must go back to a few years after Jurassic Park, to the year 1998. In those post-prehistoric days, the public image of the company then known as "Apple Computer" was animated less by Steve Jobs than by Dr Ian Malcolm, The Tall Guy, The Fly, the quirky, piano-playing actor whom Pauline Kael once called a "Wagnerian superlover." 

Kids in 1984 had that canonical "1984" Macintosh ad. I had Jeff Goldblum chatting with no one in particular about how easy it is to get on "the internet" with the first iMac. 

Goldblum as awkward, neurotic middle-aged dude trying to figure out technology; the proto Mac Guy. In many ways, the folksy campaign was a stroke of genius, the perfect ads for the waning years of Clintonian exuberance, when America was unyoking itself from America Online and computers were inching into emotional territory. They were machines you might hang out with for hours on end.

"We wanted to have an interesting voice to be attached to iMac," Ken Segall, a former creative director of the advertising agency TBWA/Chiat/Day, the agency of record for most Apple ads since "1984," told  Business Insider in 2012. "The campaign was very successful." 

Still, it's not hard to feel almost embarrassed by the quaintness of Goldblum's riffs on the future. Email is "as easy as lickin' a stamp,"  he says in one ad

And then there was the commercial with Goldblum about iMovie that, Segall said, "makes me grimace when I watch it today. It might not have been so awful back then, but I look at it now and it's kind of embarrassing to watch Goldblum dance and edit himself. It's one of those things that i will supress every time I see it."

The iMac Goldblum ads would later be reborn on the Internet, of course, in a way that only the Internet could rebirth them: Goldblum slowed down to a drunk crawl. The first "Drunk Jeff Goldblum" video appeared online in 2007, according to KnowYourMeme. Goldblum had been out-Goldblumed. (Thanks, iMovie.)

Fast forward to 2012, when Goldblum re-emerged as a pitchman for PayPal, with his familiar twitchy, how-do-I-do-this shtick. It was part of a big image shake-up by David Marcus, PayPal's then-new CEO. "Goldblum,"  Adweek pointed out, "is speaking to the caricature of a mom who's the basis for all jokes about moms not having any idea what's going on with their computers."

The ads were a clear sign of desperation for PayPal and didn't work quite as well as the last time. They made some people nervous even. 

Once again, the internet stepped in to fix all that. 

The original PayPal ads can no longer be found on YouTube; the drunk ones are readily available. 

Fast forward to 2014. GE has a new partnership with the invention social network Quirky, mostly geared toward sexing up the century-old company's own products. At some point, a smart lightbulb went off on Madison Avenue. 

Did the ad men at BBDO New York, which produced the lightbulb ad, recall the iMac campaign and their drunken spawn, and aim to replicate their Internet success? In any case, the new Goldblum ad is already weird enough that a drunk treatment probably won't be necessary. (Not to discourage anyone, though.) 

The ad signals a shift too. In the world of Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, funny is out and weird is in. "They have changed, to some degree, the sense of humor coming in the doors now in submissions," Mike Lazzo, creative director at Adult Swim, told Fast Company in a recent profile of Tim and Eric's company, Abso Lutely. (Tim and Eric have worked with Goldblum before, casting him in their 2004 awesome show "Tom Goes to the Mayor.")

It all looks like part a larger new strategy to sell us stuff, geared toward the weird morass of News Feeds and subreddits. You can see it if you don't press "Skip Ad": the advertisers are learning they need to be just as strange as the "millenials" they're addressing, or stranger. They need to be edgy. 

This week, The New York Times reported, "[T]hose attending Advertising Week in New York are being advised—sometimes gently, sometimes forcefully—that to produce campaigns that will more effectively resonate with contemporary consumers, they must risk failing and risk alienating their target audiences."

"Being fearless is the only answer right now [because] if you play it right up the middle you really don't [accomplish much]," Dana Anderson, senior vice president and chief marketing officer of Mondelez International, the global snack giant, told a panel at Advertising Week called "Fearless," according to the Times. (Her company has gained some attention for a Honey Maid campaign this year that included gay and interracial couples and a single father.)

"If it's not good enough to tell somebody about," she added, referring to sharing on social media, "then it's not good enough for you."

The weird approach is new for GE, but it seems to be working. A number of breathless blog posts are already in agreement: this lightbulb sounds cool.

Among the celebrants, a post at TechCrunch observed the ways the ad expanded the circle of "smart home shoppers" to "fans of edgy, off-kilter humor with specific, limited appeal." The recognition of the "smart home" by a wider, weirder audience is reason for applause, it concluded, perhaps prematurely, and vaguely nonetheless: "We're getting there." 

For those who can't wait to find out where we're getting, exactly, well, there's always Waitmate.