The consistency of the message in Apple’s advertising

When I watched the commercials Apple has created for the iPad 2 (you can watch them on the iPad page at Apple’s site), my first reaction as a long-time Mac user was to feel familiarity, some kind of déjà vu. In their form, even before analysing the content. The direction, the style and their persuasive voice-overs are all elements that bring me back in time, to Apple’s advertising campaigns of the 1980s and 1990s.

Take the first iPad 2 ad, We believe. I remember reading some of the reactions around the Web which seemed to characterise this ad as emblematic of the ‘new course’ of Apple, of the new ‘Post-PC era’ in which the personal computer, the computer for everyday people, does not look at all like the computers we’ve seen so far, but takes the form of a tablet. A tablet which — thanks to its physical characteristics, but also to its operating system and user interface — becomes almost a tabula rasa, a device so sophisticated as to disappear to make room for human creativity.

This is confirmed by the copy of all five ads released so far:

This is what we believe. Technology alone is not enough. Faster, thinner, lighter — those are all good things. But when technology gets out of the way, everything becomes more delightful, even magical. That’s when you leap forward. That’s when you end up with something like this. (“We believe”)

If you ask a parent, they might call it intuitive… if you ask a musician, they might call it inspiring… to a doctor, it’s groundbreaking… to a CEO, it’s powerful… to a teacher, it’s the future… if you ask a child, she might call it magic… and if you asked us, we’d say it’s just getting started… (“If you asked”)

Now we can watch a newspaper, listen to a magazine, curl up with a movie, see a phone call, now we can take a classroom anywhere, hold an entire bookstore, and touch the stars. Because now, there’s this. (“Now”)

We’ll never stop sharing our memories, or getting lost in a good book… We’ll always cook dinner and cheer for our favorite team… We’ll still go to meetings, make home movies, and learn new things… But how we do all this will never be the same. (“We’ll always”)

Are you curious about new ideas? Do you want to learn a new language? Or just a new word? Maybe you want to know more about anatomy? Or astronomy? You could master something new. Or uncover a hidden talent. There’s never been a better time to learn. (“Learn”)

The text of We believe is almost a statement of that, and the other four ads further expand on the theme taking different angles. These ads are beautifully two-fold: on one hand they’re all about the product, which is always, literally, at their centre. On the other, they go beyond that same product: the device is like a window through which you can see what can be done when you combine human creativity with technology (the subtext is “with the right tool”, of course). Without this powerful combination, the iPad is just a thing.

To many people who are new to Apple (perhaps their first purchase was not even a Mac, but an iPod or iPhone or iPad), this message — Technology alone is not enough — may sound new and revolutionary. Actually, it has always been one of the key principles of Apple’s philosophy since the original Macintosh. A message that’s been routinely proposed in various forms and from different perspectives in Apple’s advertising language for the last thirty years.

Let’s start from afar: one of my favorite Apple commercials dates back to 1983, before the Macintosh. It was created to advertise the Lisa, and the protagonist is a young Kevin Costner, who plays an atypical business executive (the parallel with Steve Jobs is self-evident). In the video we see Costner in the early morning, bicycling and walking the dog, and at first he looks like a guy enjoying a holiday or a weekend. After a few moments, however, we discover that he’s actually going to work. He brings the dog in his office, sits at the desk and checks some charts on his Lisa. The phone rings, we learn it’s his wife, and Costner says: Yeah, I’ll be home for breakfast and smiles. Even just looking at the visual narrative you can guess the message that technology (and specifically Apple’s technology), by adapting to our lives, makes our lives easier; the voice-over further emphasises this:

The way some business people spend their time has very little to do with the clock. At Apple, we understand that “business as usual” isn’t anymore. That’s why we make the most advanced personal computers in the world. And why soon there’ll be just two kinds of people: those who use computers… and those who use Apples.

[The transcript is mine. Apologies for any mistake I may have made.]

Yes, it is a message from 1983, and the direction was already drawn. Apple already presented its products as an alternative — as the alternative — on many levels. Not only were they different products from those of other computer brands, they were products of a company that doesn’t view technology as an end in itself, but as a means to improve people’s lifestyle. Technology is a tool we can take advantage of to express ourselves and our creativity. It’s not something to be worshipped or fetishised.

Looking at many other Apple commercials in the following years, we see that in most cases the focus is not so much on the computer itself, its technical specifications, or the technologies it incorporates, but rather on the interaction between man and device, an interaction obviously beneficial to man. In the famous 1984 ad, you don’t even see the Macintosh — once again, the message goes beyond the computer (You’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984’, i.e. it won’t be a world without freedom like in Orwell’s novel). In another fairly well known commercial, The Power To Be Your Best (1990), the Macintosh can be seen only at the end, after an overview of different human activities, while the voice-over says:

Think of all the power on this earth, the power of nature and human beings, the power of spirit, and speed, and determination, and then realise that of all these powers, none is more important than the power that resides within the minds of us all, the power to learn, to communicate, to imagine, to create… The power to be your best. 

(Again, note how the emphasis is put on creating and learning, and that this copy could be practically reused for another iPad commercial with very little editing).

The other two famous advertising campaigns of the nineties (Power is Macintosh and Think Different) don’t deviate much from this line — that intersection of technology and liberal arts where Apple has been standing not since the iPad, but since Apple’s very own inception. Creating better products that make people’s lives better, in an infinite loop where human creativity creates better technological tools to enhance human creativity. You can say it’s a powerful mix.

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About Riccardo Mori

Writer. Translator. Mac consultant. Enthusiast photographer. • If you like what I write, please consider supporting my writing by purchasing my short stories, Minigrooves or by making a donation. Thank you!