Over the years, Apple has produced a number of memorable TV commercials. The “1984” Super Bowl spot, with its dystopian noir and portrayal of Big Blue as Big Brother, is arguably the most celebrated commercial ever made. This bit of sixty-second cinema by Ridley Scott (now Sir Ridley) — director of epoch-making films such as The Duellists, Alien, and, my favorite, Blade Runner — was, and still is, mesmerizing. After the ad was screened for the first time at Apple’s Fall 1983 Sales Meeting in Honolulu the crowd sat in stunned silence… for about three seconds.

When Steve Jobs rebooted Apple in 1997, he needed a rallying cry…and he found one that still resonates: Think Different. Richard Dreyfuss narrated the campaign’s “The Crazy Ones” commercial, but there’s another, never-aired version voiced by Jobs that still moves me to tears. (Last year, on the occasion of Jobs’ demise, AdWeek edited the famous commercial and spliced in a smiling picture of the young Steve at the ending, right after the image of the child opening her eyes… )

Then there’s the long and well-loved “I’m A Mac, You’re a PC” series, featuring John Hodgman and Justin Long (the link gives you access to all 66 TV spots of this historic campaign). It’s more than good fun, it’s a great, lasting example of a classic (a polite way of saying apparently “unoriginal”) strategy: Us vs. Them. The ads are brilliant, consistent, cleanly executed with simple, unencumbered visuals and a sly, understated humor. A joy.

Occasionally, Apple’s sense-of-commercial misses the mark, such as in this PowerMac G4 dud that features tanks and a US Army sergeant voice-over. But the missteps have been few; Apple advertising is typically well thought out and well done. Good ideas, near flawless execution.

That brings us to today. Over the past few months, Apple has put out a series of commercials that fall into two categories: a good idea poorly executed, and the great execution of a troubling concept.

First, we have the “Genius” ads. The Apple Store Geniuses provide, undoubtedly, the best tech support in the industry, leading the company’s products to top scores in customer satisfaction surveys. An ad campaign that promotes this advantage while poking subtle fun at the immodesty of the “Genius” designation should have been a straight shot. The idea lends itself to a series of humorous vignettes that end with a relieved customer, a show back on the road, a CEO in distress saved from embarrassment, and so on.

But in practice, as you can see for yourself here, here, and here, the ads fail. The worthy idea is ruined by stories that feel forced and overly cute, the message falls far short of the clarity we expect from Apple’s marketing campaigns… and they’re just not funny. Even the production seems cheap and hurried, right down to continuity problems: A sleeping Genius, garbed in his official blue t-shirt, is roused by a panicked knock on the door and appears a split-second later… with his badge-cum-business card holder now draped around his neck.

The ads were widely panned and, soon, mercifully yanked.

In the more troublesome category, we have the Siri commercials featuring celebrities Zooey Deschanel, Samuel L. Jackson, John Malkovich, and Martin Scorsese. They’re smart and well-produced, they’re flatteringly imitable — and Samsung must love them.

Why?

Because they’re pernicious: They dilute the focus, they detract from Apple products’ own well-deserved and well-earned celebrity.

As a comparison and a template, regard the series of Louis Vuitton ads produced by the great photographer Annie Leibovitz. What, or rather, who do you see? Sean Connery, Catherine Deneuve, Michael Gorbachev, Roger Federer, Keith Richards, Muhammad Ali…

… with a Louis Vuitton bag.

The message is cynical but clear: Our bag is no better than a Gucci or an Hermès, but if you sport our logo, you’ll have something in common with iconic athletes, artists, intellectuals… You, too, can be like Mikhail Gorbachev or Michael Phelps… if only in our accoutrements. (The Annie Leibovitz campaign is pompously called “Core Values” — or, given the roster of subjects, is this unconscious honesty?).

This is an exceedingly well-thought out and executed plan; Louis Vuitton is an astute, superbly managed company, at the top of its game. But what does it say about the iPhone if Apple feels it has to use Louis Vuitton-like tactics to entice consumers?

Until the Siri celebrity campaign, Apple products had always been the focus of Apple marketing. The product is the hero, the ad extolls what it does and how it does it. The recourse to celebrity endorsement sends a new message: The product isn’t strong enough, it needs the propinquity of the famous. And that message becomes even more dangerous because the ads are so slick, so well executed. (The Scorsese ad even includes a sweet visual joke that refers to the director’s 1976 Taxi Driver movie. A nice touch…but it has nothing to do with Apple.)

That’s why Samsung must have an extra reason to smile when they see Ms. Deschanel dance in her pajamas, and that’s why these ads should be yanked and why the celebrity strategy — a first for Apple if memory serves — should be reconsidered.

And, then, at the risk of piling on, there is the product being promoted: Siri.

Doubtless, it works for some people, but how many?

How many give up after a few tries?

I recently asked an Apple insider that very question. The individual thought a moment but couldn’t recall seeing a Siri-using colleague.

There is a difference between a beta product such as a spreadsheet exhibiting annoying but reasonably well-defined bugs — and a beta like Siri that “kind of works” and discourages some users while pleasing others.

I have no doubt Apple has thought out ambitious long term plans for Siri, plans that might unfold in time and make Siri as universally and reliably usable as a other iPhone functions and apps. But, for the time being, besides their feeble Vuitton-like recourse to celebrities, the slick Siri ads could be perceived as misleading. Another reason to shelve them.

As for the Genius campaign: Fire the ad agency, but keep the concept. Press the reset button, keep the message, rewrite the ads. The idea has potential for a series of effective and fun ads.

JLG@mondaynote.com

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