Apple Advertising Philosophy Undergoing a Sea Change?

by Chris Seibold Nov 16, 2005

Apple was holding a soiree for the employees, the attractions included free beer and vegetarian fare (do nachos count as vegetarian food?) but the beer and the hummus came with a price, they were going to have to listen to a pitch by Steve Jobs. So it was on September 30, 1997 when Steve revealed Apple’s new marketing strategy. The new strategy would entail focusing on Apple’s brand. Steve cited Nike commercials that left people with a feeling of physical excellence without ever showing the shoe.1

Surely, one would think, there was someone in the audience that realized there was a problem with Steve’s analogy. If such a person attended, they remained silent either out of lust for beer or fear of voicing an opinion contrary to Steve’s. The problem with Steve’s analogy is, of course, that Nike doesn’t just advertise with television ads. Nike also sponsors athletes, tons of them. While you might get a groovy feeling from the latest Nike ad, it is immediately followed up by someone doing something extremely athletic in said shoes. Which likely sold more shoes: an abstract ad or Michael Jordan’s series winning shot against the Utah Jazz? Undoubtedly Apple would have pursued the sponsorship idea but since people won’t willingly watch other people use computers they were unable to avail themselves of that option (save for a few movies).

Apple’s strategy may have been mistaken, incomplete or a stroke of genius depending on your perspective. In any event, Apple held the course for years. If you were to take any particular television ad produced between the date of Steve’s speech and the most recent July you’ll note that they share a common theme. Some may find that conclusion surprising. What could a TV spot featuring Einstein, Gandhi, Picasso and a Richard Dreyfuss voice over have in common with G4 towers surrounded by tanks? Rest assured the common theme is there but it takes a moment to ferret the thing out. Once it hits though, it becomes impossible not to notice it in every subsequent ad (like petals around the rose). The theme isn’t one of some hidden message or even a shared background but rather something that is omitted. Specifically, you never see the Apple products actually working. You’ll be treated to spinning Macs, slovenly snails, or silhouettes dancing but never an actual product doing what it was designed to do.

The most unfathomable example of this is the spot introducing Airport. While the technology has become commonplace today it was Apple who first glommed onto the wireless future. One would anticipate seeing someone using a computer wirelessly, it was a brand new technology that no one else was using so why not highlight something your machines can do that competition can’t? The reason doesn’t really matter, when Apple tried to push Airport they relied on an ad that made the base station seem like a UFO. Granted the technology seemed otherworldly at the time but from the commercial you really couldn’t be sure if Airport was going let you surf the net unencumbered by wires or if the thing would abduct you in the middle of the night for a round of unspeakable probing.

Apple stuck with the strategy for eight solid years. Things may be changing, the most recent iPod commercial shows the iPod playing a video. It doesn’t seem like a big deal but, when viewed with an eye on earlier Apple ads, it is a change of major proportions. Can we expect to see more demo style commercials from Apple? One would think after eight years building the brand it might be an opportune moment to show folks how the products actually function. Hopefully, Apple is headed in the direction of giving people visual cues as to what their products actually do. Such a change can’t do anything but decrease confusion. The nano spots coupled with the aforementioned iPod ads are doing a great job of delineating the models.

Now is the moment to let you imagination run free. Envision a new iMac that features fast user switching but instead of accounts it switches operating systems. Richard Dreyfuss isn’t doing much so he could another voice over while the computer was flipping to Windows along the lines of:
“Finally, one computer that can do everything…”
Such an ad would let people who were thinking of switching know, with certainty, that they had a safety net. Now quickly disabuse yourself of that fantasy, there are two rules in life: Don’t talk about Fight Club and don’t put the Mac on TV. Though one supposes there will be some really great iPod ads that will come out of the change in thinking.

1. Second Coming of Steve Jobs, Alan Deutschman


  • I think Steve Jobs would be great in TV ads, somewhat like Lee Iacocca in the 70s.  Just have him talk about the new Mactel holding it in his hands, or having it next to him. Then let the customer know that they can get a free DVD with a lot of information about all the great features like iLife.  Apple has done some very good Quicktime movies in the past and this approach will do the one thing that really needs to be done to sell a Mac - explaining and showing what a Mac is really about.

    MacKen had this to say on Nov 17, 2005 Posts: 88
  • I’ve been opposed to Apple’s advertising methods for a long time, but I can’t offer a single, viable alternative. I’ve tried telling fellow Mac users that they should show what OS X can do or what a particular machine can do, but often time I’m told, “That would just open the doors for bad things.”

    In a way, Apple’s smart. They don’t get anyone’s hopes up about what a particular machine can do because you’re never told what it can do to begin with. But at the same time, by not knowing what any given Mac can do, how would anyone know whether or not they want a Mini or an iMac? An iBook or a PowerBook? A Nano or an iPod Video?

    I think the iPod ads actually work, however. Catchy songs (even if you or I don’t agree with that part) dubbed over video of a person or sillhouette with the unmistakable white buds in their ears, walkin’ or rockin’. What more do you need? All it truly does is play music. Are you going to spend 30 minutes saying how it can sync with OS X’s iCal and Address Book and it can be used as a hard drive? No. That’s not the selling point.

    The only commercial that every came close to demoing a Mac the way I’d like to see done is the one where Gregory Hines films himself dancing and then walks over and starts working on it in iMove because the camera was hooked right into his Mac (iBooK? PowerBook? I can’t remember which). That’s a good method: you don’t say specifically what it can do, but you allude to it through an unexplained demonstration.

    Similar ads featuring a couple sending their parents’ a DVD of their wedding is a bit less convincing to me. It’s also misleading because not every Mac can burn a DVD (yet)!

    I dunno… There’s a reason I’m not in the marketing field.

    Waa had this to say on Nov 17, 2005 Posts: 110
  • Here’s the commercial they should make:

    Have expose and dashboard reacting rythmically to music, while also doing some sort of common function. It’ll show off the eye candy and the simplicity of OS X. Hell, at the end of the commercial pull out and show the computer it is running on.

    sockit2me had this to say on Nov 18, 2005 Posts: 1
  • Then again, the “greatest commercial ever” didn’t feature a tangible product either ...

    Jens_T had this to say on Nov 18, 2005 Posts: 11
  • Jens hits the nail on the head. The “greatest commercial ever” was filmatic, highly conceptual, and never showed what the Macintosh did - even tho no one really knew what it did (aka the Airport commercial referenced).

    I think that the new video iPod and nano commercials really bring Apple to the masses. I don’t agree with this strategy but it is a clear departure, as described well above.

    They seem to mark a change for safety: marketing its functions and strengths - because the biz folks might be getting worried about their vast market share (and the value of their stock). I hope this is not the case, and the inmates are not running the asylum.

    Post S. Jobs but pre iCEO, post System 7 but pre-OS X: they were some dark days, but they (marketing) stuck to their guns and launched the “Think Different” campaign. Just brilliant, and kept the Mac at the top of people’s minds even when their product was in the dumps.

    I strongly disagree that Apple focus on function. Just as great automakers do - let the product be reviewed by experts (and lauded) and let the commercials be aspirational, inspirational, and conceptual.

    Nathan had this to say on Nov 19, 2005 Posts: 219
  • Chris - btw, a great article as always. But I think you really miss the reasons behind the shift in the messaging of the new commercials. I would be almost willing to bet anything you are an engineer or in the tech industry by trade?

    Nathan had this to say on Nov 19, 2005 Posts: 219
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