Where form meets function

Apple’s advertising calls into question what is more effective: telling a story, or merely allowing a product to sell itself without allowing the commercial spot to feel like a cold tutorial? In its early days, the company wanted to feel anti-authority and like a device meant to uproot the downtrodden. Thirty years later and the company and its ensuing advertisements have softened, but haven’t completely abandoned the notion of being misunderstood.

With the recent announcement of the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus as well as a new commercial featuring Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake, we take a look back at the 10 most memorable commercials from Apple’s past.


Air Date: January 22, 1984

Aired nationally a single time during a Super Bowl that pitted the Washington Redskins versus the Los Angeles Raiders, the commercial was conceived by Steve Hayden, Brent Thomas and Lee Clow – and ultimately executed by screen legend Ridley Scott. Filmed for $370,000 USD despite being given an unprecedented $900,000 USD production budget, Scott was two years removed from Blade Runner and seemed the perfect man for the job. But when it was aired for Apple’s board of directors, it was met with universal dislike. In his 1983 Apple keynote address, Steve Jobs read the following story before showcasing a preview of the commercial.

“It is now 1984. It appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money. Dealers initially welcoming IBM with open arms now fear an IBM-dominated and controlled future. They are increasingly turning back to Apple as the only force that can ensure their future freedom. IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control: Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?”


Air Date: January 20, 1985

Once again utilizing the Mecca of all advertising – the Super Bowl – as the stage to make a statement, Apple continued to assert itself as anything but the status quo when it came to introducing Macintosh Office. Unlike “1984,” the commercial was viewed as a failed attempt at challenging potential customers and was met with more backlash than acclaim due to how aggressively they portrayed those that hadn’t yet been swept up in the Apple fervor from a year prior. While every ad can’t be a winner, they showed that not playing it safe during the Super Bowl would soon be a strategy for other brands as well.


Industrial Revelation
Air Date: 1991

Harnessing the tagline “the power to be your best,” this 1991 spot toes the line between feeling inspirational and being preachy to the budding customer base. In the early years of Apple advertising, the tone was distinctly aggressive, but as “Industrial Revelation” showcases, it was slowly starting to make Apple users feel like they were “in it together.”


Think Different/The Crazy Ones
Air Date: October 2, 1997

The cast of characters is an unforgettable one: Albert Einstein, Bob Dylan, Martin Luther King, Jr., Richard Branson, John Lennon, Buckminster Fuller, Thomas Edison, Muhammad Ali, Ted Turner, Maria Callas, Mahatma Gandhi, Amelia Earhart, Alfred Hitchcock, Martha Graham, Jim Henson (with Kermit the Frog), Frank Lloyd Wright and Pablo Picasso. In speaking about the campaign, Steve Jobs remarked, “When you grow up you tend to get told the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money. That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact, and that is – everything around you that you call life, was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.”

Grammar enthusiasts will note that the slogan “Think Different” is actually incorrect – as if “different” is considered a modifier, then it needs to be conjugated as an adverb, making “think differently” the accurate phrase. According to Jobs’ official biography, “Jobs insisted that he wanted ‘different’ to be used as a noun, as in ‘think victory’ or ‘think beauty.'” Also, Jobs wanted to make it sound colloquial, like the phrase “think big.”


Air Date: 1999

Meant to showcase their new iMac G3 computers and first unveiled by Steve Jobs during the Macworld San Francisco keynote on January 7, 1999, they’ve reused the notion of being bold both from a philosophical sense and a design aesthetic as they’ve rolled out vibrant colors for their iPhone 5s and its “Plastic Perfected” concept, as well as the newly announced Apple Watch which is available in a multitude of colors.


The iPod Silhouettes
Air Date: 2004-2011

Steve Jobs often had Apple advertising stray away from using people because he felt it was hard to find one person who appealed to everyone. The beauty of the silhouette campaign is that it allowed for consumers to fill in the gaps as it related to physical attributes, ethnicity, and even more specific details like hair color, etc. While the ingenuity took care of the person aspect of the ad, Jobs wasn’t initially thrilled because he thought what the ambiguity did for the human element was actually a detriment in terms of highlighting the product.


Get a Mac
Air Date: 2006-2009

The “Hello, I’m a Mac” versus “And I’m a PC” threw out past Steve Jobs critiques about using people to personify products in one of the most memorable and aggressive Apple campaigns ever. In terms of effectiveness, prior to the 2006 string of commercials, Apple had seen a downward spike in sales. By the fiscal year end, sales were up 39%.


Air Date: February 25, 2007

Using the Academy Awards as a means to tease their forthcoming first generation iPhone, the spot capitalizes both on the recognizable nature of the actors throughout the eras as well as on an estimated 40 million viewers who were tuning in for cinema’s biggest night of the year. As Ad Age noted at the time, “The Oscar iPhone ad, created by TBWA Media Arts Lab, Los Angeles (a unit of longtime Apple shop TBWA/Chiat/Day), marks the first time in recent history that Apple has run an ad for a product that is not yet available.”

Running a total of three times during the telecast – each time closing with either “hello,” “coming in June,” and an Apple logo – the lack of officially calling it the “iPhone” had to do with legal wrangling with Cisco Systems as to who had naming rights.


John Malkovich Meets Siri
Air Date: July 24, 2012

While listening to the “Un bel dì vedremo” aria from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, John Malkovich decides to take Siri for a spin. As it’s written, it sounds like something concocted by Spike Jonze as he wrestled with the nuts and bolts of his film Her. Yet, it turned out to be one of the best celebrity-laden commercials for the iPhone 4S that also included the likes of Martin Scorsese, Samuel L. Jackson and more.

Air Date: 2013

Earning the Emmy Award for best commercial at 2014’s Creative Arts Emmys, the spot showcases the more human element of Apple’s innovations without completely abandoning the usefulness of the product. Created out of TBWA/Media Arts Lab and directed by Park Pictures’ Lance Acord, the win joined the “Here’s to the Crazy Ones” ad from the “Think Different” campaign as Emmy wins for Apple. Former creative director at TBWA, Ken Segall, wrote, “This ad is a holiday card from Cupertino. It lines up perfectly with the values Apple has communicated for years. It’s not about technology — it’s about quality of life.”

Words by Alec Banks
Features Editor

Alec Banks is a Los Angeles-based long-form writer with over a decade of experience covering fashion, music, sports, and culture.

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