A very perceptive friend of the agency provided the inspiration for the following commentary by sending me this article in AdWeek covering Apple's TV spots for the iPhone 5. You can see all four of the spots by visiting that link, but here's one for reference:
AdWeek points out that this spot seems to be a back-to-basics approach to Apple Ads following the disappointments with the widely unpopular "Genius Ads." While the point is interesting, I don't think it shows a long term understanding of Apple's advertising.
Think back to the late 90s. Steve Jobs has just returned to Apple as a consultant and somehow managed to out the CEO and replace the Board of Directors. One of his first moves as acting CEO was to rehire TBWA's famous agency Chiat-Day (as a matter of disclosure, I work for a TBWA network agency). Apple's product pipeline wasn't promising, and Apple needed a way to convince its remaining loyal customers that the company would not only survive, but return to growth. Apple's ads made an about face going from this:
Think Different was risky. No product is shown in the ad. For that matter, no computers of any kind appear during the campaign. If you're not a professional marketer, you may have never seen a Brand Anthem. Often agencies will produce longer form, high-creative work aimed at marketing people or internal audiences. These typically aren't shown to the public because media is expensive and customer attention is scarce. If you have the money for media and the customer's attention, the safe bet is generally on a product message. Under Steve, Apple made the realization that there was no good product message, and Apple had to buy time. So, they drew a line in the sand and publicly proclaimed what they stood for. In those days, most people believed Apple was going out of business. Windows 95 was eating away the final advantages of the Mac. Luckily, Think Different worked. It was lifestyle advertising at its best, and it rallied the troops–both internal and external to Apple's payroll long enough for new products to reach production.
The first major introduction after Steve return was the Power Macintosh G3 and the Apple Store online. The Power Mac G3 featured a new processor that offered some genuine, if overstated, performance advantages for that time. The hardware was very nice in terms of serviceability, but not all that different from previous Power Macs. Apple introduced a little bit of swagger into it's ads with "Toasted."
Toasted was another stop gap ad. The Power Macintosh G3 family was well into development by the time Steve returned, but you can see modern elements to Apple's ads in this spot. There is a plain white background. One product feature is communicated during the entire 30 second spot. The ad is simple, direct and focused.
In August of 1998, the first real fruit of Steve's return was born: the iMac. With this spot, we can see the formula for all of Apple's subsequent Mac product ads. Let's watch one now.
When the iMac was introduced, connecting to the Internet was confusing for most people. You needed a modem, and you needed to configure things like PPP and TCP/IP in order for that modem to offer Internet services. This spot was devoted to showing the iMac was easier. Every iMac ad highlighted a single feature. Apple's Mac ads continued with this formula all the way to the present. Take a a look at the latest ads for the Retina MacBook Pro.
One product is featured for the entire 30 seconds. One feature is the focus of the entire spot. It is explained simply, directly and focused. Look back at Apple's Mac ads. Dozens of product spots all support this message. From the candy-colored iMacs, to the funky floating display of the iMac G4, to the weapons grade Power Mac G4 and into the modern age of impossibly thin portable computers the formula has remained remarkably consistent.
Of course, Apple doesn't just do product ads. They also produce higher-order campaigns to sell platforms. The first such campaign was "Switch." These ads were straight-shot testimonials from former Windows users who made a move to the Mac.
The switch ads were well liked by most Apple fans, but were the source of considerable debate in the larger world of tech. No one could say for sure if these ads were really convincing people to buy Macs. Apple's sales were improved, but that wasn't saying much–Apple was coming back from the verge of collapse. After the Switch campaign ran its course, the Get a Mac campaign filled the Mac campaign role. I'm sure you remember its opening line.
We see that Apple has two concurrent ad models for the Mac. On the one hand you have the very consistent product ads. On the other, you have higher-concept campaigns that lay the groundwork for the product spots. The most recent Mac campaign was Mac Genius, and it hit the market with a thud.
I actually like these spots. As a technical Mac person, I get interrupted by well meaning people seeking Mac help a lot. I had high hopes for this series, but the crowd spoke quickly and loudly. Apple pulled these spots in record time, and the Mac campaign spot is left empty.
Today, Apple makes more than Macs. It may seem strange, but there was a time when the idea of Apple making something other than computers and peripherals was an oddity.. As great as the iMac was, it was not the product that propelled Apple to the forefront of culture. That honor belongs to the iPod. When the iPod was introduced, it was a Mac only MP3 player. There was no iTunes Music Store. Apple had to explain what the product was, and the first spot shows us a bridge from the product focused Mac spots and the lifestyle focused iPod campaigns to follow.
I love this spot. You see the torch pass from the Mac to the iPod. The dancing man also lays the groundwork for the future direction of iPod advertising. In 2001, the iPod was a strange new thing from Apple, but once Windows compatibility and the iTunes Music Store were added, Apple was suddenly the leader of a market by sales volume. Everyone knew what the iPod was, and so iPod ads could focus on lifestyle. "Silhouettes" took Apple advertising in a new direction.
Like the Mac product spots, iPod ads remained remarkable consistent. Although the visual production gained texture and depth as the spots evolved, the iconic product representation remained, and the effect of the music on a dancing silhouette was the payoff. These spots worked with youth culture in a way the Mac ads never could, and cemented Apple as a dominant leader in music, and consumer electronics. Apple was no longer the maker of a niche computer brand.
Fueled by a resurgent Mac and explosive iPod growth, Apple made a bold move by launching a smart phone. The iPhone represented a fundamental shift in user interface models, and so it was not enough to show the hardware and use voiceovers about new features as worked for the Mac. Likewise, the iPod lifestyle ads couldn't convey how new and remarkable the iPhone was. Apple and TBWA created a new direction for iPhone product ads where a product demo is shared for the entire spot. This worked well because the iPhone's interface was novel and captivating.
iPhone (and iPad) ads have been just as consistent as Mac and iPod ads. Every spot is a direct product shot showing a demonstration of features and usability–at least they were until Apple introduced a new interface model for the iPhone. Siri demanded something special.
The first Siri ads were great. They showcased actual use cases and response from the product. Although shot differently than traditional iPhone spots, this was appropriate. Siri is a different way to use an iPhone. Siri ads followed a formula of their own. The focus was on Siri–in most case the full face of the person using Siri is obscured. The focus was on the iPhone and on Siri.
Apple broke this formula with the celebrity Siri ads and I never liked them. The were celebrity focused instead of product focused. Apple has used celebrities to good effect in the past–Will Ferrel did a couple of amazingly funny switch ads. But these ads didn't accurately communicate the product experience. While anyone with an iPhone 4S could try the examples given in the first Siri ads with great success, the celebrity ads were too scripted. Just try asking your 4S to remind you to "put the Gestapo on ice" as Samuel Jackson did–I've never seen this work in the wild.
As an aside, some of my favorite Apple ads are for the iPod Touch. These ads combine the iPhone style demonstrations with iPod style fun and lifestyle focus. The iPod Touch is a mashup product, so it makes sense for its ad formula to be a mashup as well.
With all this in mind, it seems clear that Apple has very consistent formulas for product advertising. The new iPhone spots aren't a retreat from the Siri ads at all–they're a continuation of the approach that extends all the way back to the iMac ads of 1998. Apple's Siri ads shouldn't be viewed as an aberration. Instead, they are part of a new family of Feature ads. Look at the spots for iCloud, or IOS 5 for other examples.
No company can execute flawlessly all the time, and there have been some bad ads in Apple's history. A careful examination of Apple's ad history should make it clear that the iPhone 5 ads aren't an attempt to right the wrongs of the Mac Genius spots–they are the normal formula for new iPhone hardware. Apple exhibits remarkable discipline in maintaining a brand that is consistent in how it communicates.
We haven't seen the last of the Apple feature ads. Just don't confuse them for product spots.