Dell Dude: Surfer Geek Boosts PC Sales

ByABC News

Jan. 24, 2002 -- He's every parent's whining teenager, every kid's obnoxious best friend. He's "Steven," the face of Dell Computers.

Part surfer-dude, part techno-geek, Steven is actually 21-year-old acting student Ben Curtis, who's riding the wave as advertising's newest superstar.

"Steven really isn't me at all," says Curtis. "I'm sure I'm becoming more and more like Steven every day since, you know, after a year of these spots it kind of grows on you. You know, I caught myself saying 'excellent' today."

Says Ad Age columnist and ABCNEWS consultant Bob Garfield, "This campaign is so odd in so many ways. I mean, let's start with surfer-dude? He's sort of like Leave it to Beaver meets Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure."

That sounds like an annoying combination, but Garfield says Steven connects with the younger generation, and they are the ones driving the market.

"It's very seldom that a single advertising campaign can make such a dramatic difference for a brand. But this campaign has. And it just defies all logic," he adds.

'Mr. Whipple with a Hard Drive'

Just ask Dell. It claims a 100 percent increase in consumer sales since the Steven campaign began. "The phones are ringing. The [Web] site's being visited. We know it's working," says representative Claire Bennett.

Of course, before entrusting a $200 million ad campaign to an actor whose previous experience was a high school play, Dell must have fully tested the concept. Well … not exactly.

"I was 20 years old and they said, 'It's the Dell computer commercial, we're casting ages 12-17, here's the script.' And I walked in and did it," says Curtis.

There's nothing new about using advertising characters, whether live humans or cartoons to stand for a products, explains Garfield. "I mean you go back to the '50s and '60s — you had Mr. Whipple. I mean, Steven is nothing more than Mr. Whipple with a hard drive."

A grocer selling toilet paper is much less of a stretch than a slacker selling computers. But Garfield says that in the end it's about brand-name recognition — finding a character that will make your product memorable.

That doesn't mean he has to like it. "Had I reviewed this campaign from the beginning, I would have dumped all over it. I would have volunteered this kid for euthanasia," Garfield quips.

Admits Curtis: "You can hate it, you can love it, you can laugh at it, you can turn it off, but I mean it's there."

As for Curtis, the success of the ads has jump-started his acting career. "I think people just love laughing at him. … I laugh at myself everyday. I mean, I was just sitting here cracking up.

And he's got Dell Computers laughing, too — all the way to the bank.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events