Maybe Apple Computer doesn't think so differently after all: the company has removed a photograph of the Dalai Lama from advertisements set to appear in Asia, reportedly for fear of offending China, and in the process set off a maelstrom of bad publicity.
The South China Morning Post reported on Monday that Apple had decided to pull the image of the Dalai Lama, currently appearing in the US version of its ad campaign, when the marketing effort begins in Asia. The advertisements depict a black-and-white photograph of an historic figure or a celebrity and the words "think different". The campaign has included the likenesses of the Dalai Lama, Miles Davis, Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso and Amelia Earhart, among others.
The withdrawal of the ad provoked editorial outrage at the Asian Wall Street Journal where writer Michael Judge opined: "Apparently the folks at Apple have been taking night classes at the Rupert Murdoch school of free speech. Lesson No. 1: Free speech is fine and dandy, unless it jeopardises your access to a massive and potentially lucrative market. Apple's market share in China is negligible. It may have decided that ads featuring the Dalai Lama, once reviled as a 'political insect' and more recently compared by Chinese officials to crazed American cult leader David Koresh, would not be good for business."
The Dalai Lama, the Buddhist spiritual leader who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, has been in exile from Tibet since 1959. The Chinese army invaded Tibet in 1950, killing thousands and systematically destroying almost all of the Buddhist temples in the country.
Ever since his exile to India, the Dalai Lama has remained in the forefront of attempts to gain autonomy for Tibet. In recent years, he also has become something of a cultural icon as well as a spiritual leader, giving permission for his likeness to appear in the Apple ad campaign, gaining support for the "Free Tibet" movement from US celebrities and having his story told in Hollywood films.
According to the New York Times and the Asian Wall Street Journal, Apple initially said that the ad was being pulled because the company wanted to depict someone better known in the region than the Dalai Lama -- a comment that apparently was met with skepticism given that the Asian ad campaign will feature a photo of US aviator Amelia Earhart, whose plane disappeared in the Pacific Ocean in 1937.
A reporter with the New York Times News Service in Hong Kong noted that the Apple explanation was thin given that Earhart "is hardly a household name here" while the Dalai Lama is well known.
Later, an Apple spokeswoman admitted that the issue was one of "political sensitivities" and that the company does not want to offend China.
"We needed to decide on images that were appropriate across the region," Sue Sara, an Apple spokeswoman in the Asia-Pacific division based in Sydney was quoted as telling the Times.
The fact that Apple decided to use the Dalai Lama's image in the campaign in the first place drew a caustic comment from Judge in a recent Asian Wall Street Journal editorial.
"While Buddhism, Tibet and the Dalai Lama are the latest craze in advertising and Hollywood ... they represent a way of life (and death) for millions of Asians who take their freedom and their faith seriously," he wrote. "Apple's mistake was trying to hitch itself to a religious and political movement, mixing it indiscriminately with an American-style celebrity list."
Judge went on to detail the death fast of six Tibetan activists in New Delhi who are protesting Chinese repression in Tibet, which has intensified in recent years. The editorial writer noted that when Apple kicked off the ad campaign, Steve Jobs, company founder and current interim chief executive officer, said, "Think different celebrates the soul of the Apple brand -- that creative people with passion can change the world for the better."
By using the Dalai Lama's image to sell computers "and then only where he is not a threat to the status quo, Apple runs the risk of rendering words like 'soul', 'creative' and 'passion' meaningless," Judge wrote. "Perhaps Mr. Jobs and his friends at Apple should change the name of their latest ad campaign from 'Think Different' to just plain 'Think'. "