IBM Takes The Global View
September 1996
by Samuel Greengard

Solutions for a Small Planet is a theme that has served IBM well. During the last year, a continuing stream of print ads and television commercials have hammered home the point that technology is here to stay and has been put to use in every walk of life around the world.

The campaign, created by the New York office of Ogilvy & Mather, depicts a variety of people whom you wouldn't expect to use a computer or have any real need for technological solutions. 'The idea was to boil down all the common issues and problems so that they are universally accessible and to show that IBM fits into the picture all over the world," says Daniel Gregory, the creative director and copywriter for the print ads.

Eight of the ten portraits were shot by New York photographer Albert Watson over a span of several weeks. The other two were stock -one from Mary Ellen Mark and the other from Chester Higgins, Jr. 'There is a real-people edge, there is a great deal of sensitivity," says Cindy Rivet, manager of Ogilvy & Mather's art buying department.

Stock image came from Marks’ Indian Circus.

Mark's photograph shows the face of an Indian elephant trainer named Sikander -his head framed by the animal's trunk. The man's chiseled face and intense gaze provides an almost surreal look when combined with the elephant's wrinkled head and body. The detail and graphic element of the image make it appear more like fine art than advertising‑which is exactly the point. "It is one of those rare images where everything comes together perfectly," says Mark, who shot the image in 1990 while documenting the life of circus performers in India.

Adds Gregory, "You can definitely sense the relationship between the man and his elephant and that is at least part of what makes the photo so compelling."

The ad's copy opens with the statement: "With every reincarnation, we hope to draw closer to Nirvana. But as each generation grows obsolete and dies, Sikander gets madder." It's followed by a bold headline, splashed across two pages, that reads, "How come I keep trashing my hardware every nine months?!" The copy that follows briefly mentions systems that can't expand to accommodate a user's needs and then offers a description of how IBM systems can help a computer user keep pace.

The image, which graced the cover of Mark's Indian Circus coffeetable book (Chronicle, 1993) and appeared in Life magazine, wasn't part of the original ad campaign strategy. Art director David Jenkins had initially planned to use only Watson's commissioned shots, but changed his mind after realizing that Mark's photograph‑one he knew well‑would work perfectly for the campaign. Especially since Mark's image hadn't run in previous ads. The agency contacted her through the book's publisher.

"I felt very comfortable with the image being used in the ad because I respect IBM and its products," says Mark. 'The ad was done in good taste."

Once Jenkins had the image in hand, he altered it digitally to strip out the original background‑people, tents and other circus-related content. He also created a new four-color black‑and‑white print for greater depth.

Meanwhile, Mark had to go back to the circus trainer to obtain permission and arrange additional payment.

The other stock image came from New York‑based Higgins, who has shot more than one million photographs over the last 26 years. It originally appeared in his book, Feeling the Spirit: Searching the World for the People of Africa (Bantam Books, 1995). It depicts a Central African nomad dressed in traditional desert garb‑‑a cloth wrapped around his face for protection against the heat and wind.

'We found the photograph of the man and so there was no point in trying to photograph a model," says Gregory. 'You certainly don't find someone who looks like that just wandering around the streets of New York or Boston."

Higgins shot the picture in Mali in 1993 and hadn't previously licensed it for advertising. "I saw it as an opportunity to showcase the image and forward my goal of depicting the decency, dignity and character of the African people," says Higgins. "It represents a more distant world than the person sitting at a desk using a computer. But a computer is simply a tool for connecting seemingly disparate people and great distances."

Gregory wanted to project the concept that IBM is contemporary and human and that the technology is accessible and genuine. And, from a strictly artistic standpoint, "we wanted real people and the highest quality photographs possible."

The ads first appeared in the summer of 1995 in a wide range of publications, including Business Week, Forbes, Men's Journal, PC Week, Rolling Stone, Scientific American, Smithsonian and Time. The stock image of the desert nomad also ran in the Wall Street Journal and Las Vegas newspapers during the COMDEX show last fall. What's more, several of the ads were translated and ran in foreign publications. All the while, the series of television commercials‑which expanded on the theme‑were also making a splash.

"Because we were dealing with a broad audience and diverse demographics, it was important that the images have an international appeal," says Gregory.

Adds Rivet: Everybody knows that the caliber of stock varies greatly, but this is of the highest level. The photographs have an aesthetic and classic look to them that's nearly impossible to duplicate."