IBM's Charlie Chaplin: A Case Study

From: Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, Sonia Maasik and Jack Solomon, eds. (Boston: Bedford Books, 1994) pp.117-121.

[Copy-edited and spell-checked Scott Atkins, September 1995. Tagged in html, October 1995.]

Remembering and Forgetting

Chiefly, we wanted something that people would remember. Using the Chaplin character was one way to create ads with stopping power.

-- P. DAVID MCGOVERN, ad director at IBM

The Tramp campaign has been so successful that it has created a new image for IBM. The firm has always been seen as efficient and reliable, but it has also been regarded as somewhat cold and aloof. The Tramp, with his ever present red rose, has given IBM a human face.

-- Time, 11 July 1983

Soldiers! Don't give yourselves to these brutes.... Don't give yourselves to these unnatural men--machine men with machine minds and machine hearts.

-- CHARLIE CHAPLIN, The Great Dictator (1939)

Stuck with a multinational, cold, colossus, remote, and even a totalitarian "Big Brother" public image, IBM took the plunge and set out to manufacture some warmer and more sympathetic associations for itself and its "personal" computer. Investing a quick 36 million, it mounted one of the largest ad campaigns ever for a computer, producing ads calling the PC "a tool for modern times" and using Charlie Chaplin's internationally recognized and beloved character, the Little Tramp. These ads proved to be both extraordinarily memorable and successful, winning not only business gains but also acclaim and awards from the advertising world.1

The method of these spots, as with so many others, was to set up a metaphor--to link a particular product with some positive symbol or association already held by the viewers, to induce "resonance." Literal absurdity is by no means a disqualifier for such metaphors. Consider cigarette advertising whereby cigarettes are said to be "only natural," to taste "like Springtime," or are consistently linked with fresh, outdoor, and highly physical activities. Such ads use nature the way the military uses camouflage. And although they may seem merely ridiculous, metaphors such as these further the pollution and destruction of both environments--the body and the ecosystem-- by bridging our feelings about each with, of all things, a cigarette.

The absurdity of the smoking ads, however, is more than matched by the contradictions inherent in the IBM campaign. In these, the Little Tramp, "perhaps the most famous creation in any art medium of the 20th century,"2 provides the positive associations, for Charlie the Tramp was a clown whose "appeal was virtually universal."3 His very image came to immediately signify humanity, survival, innocence, the beauty of the commonplace, and, above all, the soul or spirit. James Agee has written that "the Tramp is as centrally representative of humanity, as many-sided and as mysterious as Hamlet, and it seems unlikely that any dancer or actor can ever have excelled him in eloquence, variety, or poignancy of motion."4 Thus does IBM acquire a human face and graft a soul onto its new machine. The method is virtually indistinguishable from the way that Salem bonds itself to Springtime or Marlboro to the western landscape. All are highly memorable ads, ones with "stopping power."

But of course the IBM ads are as much about forgetting as remembering for, although they evoke those positive memories of Charlie, they simultaneously arrest and reverse the recollection that Chaplin himself was expressly opposed to big business, mechanization, and those technological goals and/or gods of timekeeping, speed, and efficiency. Those views, evident throughout much of his work, are nowhere more clearly expressed than in the 1936 Modern Times, Chaplin's last film to feature the Tramp, a character he had then played for over twenty years. It was in Modern Times, as Parker Tyler has observed, that, "the Machine was the thoroughly identified enemy, the robber of art and poetry."5 Now, however, in perfect accord with double- think, the home computer is plugged as "a tool for modern times," and the image of the Tramp is made to perform as the thoroughly identified advocate, indeed tool, of the Machine--International Business Machines to be precise.

In Modern Times, Chaplin as the Tramp is a worker in some colossal factory, his job to tighten the nuts on some unidentifiable product as it comes down an assembly line. The line becomes a synchronized mechanical dance, and each time Charlie takes a break his shoulders and arms twitch in helpless repetition of the nut-tightening gesture. In one of the most celebrated scenes from the film, the Big Brother-like boss of the factory orders a speedup on the line and Charlie snaps. Jumping onto the assembly line, he plunges headfirst into the machine and is swallowed though finally disgorged by the gigantic gears. Emerging from the machine, he frolics and spins out his own outrageous ballet in response to the monotone of the line, spreading sheer chaos throughout the factory. The sequence closes with him being taken off to a mental hospital.

Thus, in Chaplin's own account, the Machine might swallow him, temporarily, but it could not digest him and had to spit him out. Now, however, IBM figuratively swallows him whole, thoroughly assimilates and converts him, effectively erasing his original message by producing a doppelganger who now befriends and promotes the Machine and its order--and all accompanied by studied references to Modern Times.

For example, one of the print ads in this series features the Chaplin figure dashing madly by on a bicycle; his hat flies off and tie swings back to register the velocity. A computer is strapped to the back of his bike. The copy reads: "How to move with modern times and take your PC with you." A television spot portrays the Tramp straddling the intersection of two assembly lines in a bakery. He is placing decorated cakes from one line into boxes from the other. But the cakes don't match the boxes, the machinery starts going haywire, and chaos results. The scene then changes by means of a wipe taking the form of a hand sweeping round a clock's face, and next we see the Tramp seated in front of a personal computer. His problems, we know, will soon be technomagically solved. And indeed, next he is back at the factory, but this time a baker has taken his place on the line. The Tramp is there only to put the decoration on a cake and present it to a purely decorative female. The moral of this thirty- second parable is clear. The Tramp, backed by the Machine, has restored Order; he is now the Owner, the Boss; he gets kissed by the Girl; the End.

These very specific and specifically reversed references to Modern Times indicate something of a willful effort to undercut the integrity of that film and indeed of Chaplin himself. Although the question was raised early in the campaign as to whether the Tramp and this film actually represented an "anti- technology sentiment," both IBM and the ad agency concluded, in the words of an IBM director, that the character actually "stands fear of technology on its head."6 Of course, it is really the Chaplin character who is being stood on his head and shaken until the original content and message have been expunged, leaving only an empty if still appealing image to be infused with new meaning by IBM. Or, as O'Brien said to Winston in 1984, "You will be hollow. We shall squeeze you empty, and then we shall fill you with ourselves."7 The final punch or stopping power of these ads thus lies in their subtle suggestion that the dissident has been assimilated and converted. Just as Winston finally loves Big Brother, "Charlie" now loves the Machine.

1. Kathy Root, "Kudos for a Tramp and a Motor Mouth," Nation's Business, April 1984, 44-45; "Softening a Starchy Image," Time, 11 July 1983, 54.

2. R.A.E. Pickard, Dictionary of 1,000 Best Films (New York: Association Press, 1971), 296.

3. Louis Giannetti, Masters of the American Cinema (Englewood Cliffs, NJ.: PrenticeHall, 1981), 83.

4. James Agee, "Comedy's Greatest Era," in Film Theory and Criticism, 2d ed., edited by Gerald Mast and Marshall Cohen (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 53558.

5. Parker Tyler, Chaplin: Last of the Clowns (New York: Horizon Press, 1972), 158.

6. "Softening a Starchy Image," 54.