It may be the best known TV commercial that aired only once on television.
Apple Inc.’s iconic 1984 ad was created to trumpet the arrival of the Macintosh personal computer. But it did much more than that: Brazen, showy, single-minded, feisty, and emotional, it also set a pattern for almost all of the company’s marketing under Steve Jobs.
In the hours since Mr. Jobs’ death on Wednesday, tributes to his genius for product development have poured in from distinguished world leaders and Apple acolytes alike. But a look back at Apple’s marketing during the two periods in which he was at the company’s helm proves Mr. Jobs was also one of the savviest and most insightful commercial communicators of his era.
And most companies would do well to adopt the central principles that guided him, especially in a crowded environment where companies have to fight hard to break through and get their message out.
Apple advertising is simple, elegant, has a clear point of view, and speaks with a human voice: which is to say, it reflects the company’s products and services.
“It’s amazing when a company can start with a philosophy, put the line in the sand and say, ‘This is what we represent, this is who we’re for, this is who we’re not for,’ and then follow it up with a series of ads and be consistent to that belief and that aesthetic,” said Andrew Simon, the chief creative officer of the Toronto ad agency Blammo Worldwide.
Speaking on Thursday, Mr. Simon praised the consistent character of Apple’s advertising, especially over the past decade after Mr. Jobs returned to the company.
“Everything from the ‘Mac vs. PC’ ads to the colourful work they did [for the iPod]– it’s a phenomenal example of somebody who doesn’t just go, ‘Here are the ingredients [for our ads] let’s just keep using the same ingredients.’ It’s like, ‘Here’s the spirit of the company, these are the ideals of the company, and that’s what we’re going to base every brief and every effort on,’ – and then be flexible enough to know that sometimes it can be humorous, sometimes it can be deeply moving, sometimes it can be beautiful.”
In part because of that point of view, Apple advertising became a self-perpetuating machine, crossing over easily into popular culture as the spots were parodied, sampled, and copied by comedy TV shows and YouTube aficionados.
After Mr. Jobs made a spectacle out of every new product introduction, Apple’s competitors and colleagues – including Research In Motion, Facebook and Amazon – tried the same tack. But those companies failed to realize the products and services weren’t the only stars onstage at the Apple events: Mr. Jobs, in his blue jeans and black mock turtleneck, was a media draw whose celebrity heat has been unmatched by any of his contemporaries.
And walking the audience through his products like a proud father showing off his talented children, Mr. Jobs made it seem like using new features was as simple as opening a box and pressing a button. (Or, rather, swiping a finger across a touch screen.)
That simplicity is key to Apple’s appeal. “So many marketers these days want to tell you everything they can about all their features,” said Brent Choi, the chief creative officer of the Toronto- and Montreal-based ad agency Cundari. “Meanwhile, Apple always says a ton by saying very little. That’s one of the most [important]things I always try to take from Apple advertising: how simple it is. Just like their products. So their advertising really reflects how people experience their products.”
He added: “Because they’re so simple, their ideas are global.”
Still, if Mr. Jobs recognized the importance and power of ideas expressed simply, he also knew some people need a lot of convincing before they’ll buy a new product.
Shortly after Mr. Jobs stepped down from the CEO position in August, Steve Hayden, the current vice-chairman of the ad agency Ogilvy, wrote a guest column for the trade magazine Advertising Age in which he described his experience as the copywriter on the 1984 ad while working at the ad agency Chiat\Day. After Mr. Jobs had seen a rough-cut of the commercial, recalled Mr. Hayden, he realized it would create a demand for information about the Macintosh, and he instructed the ad agency to produce a 20-page magazine-style insert. Told there wasn’t sufficient time to do so, he replied simply: “Just do it.”
For decades, Apple positioned itself as the creative rebel fighting against the authoritarian rulers who would crush their spirit. But in recent years other companies have borrowed a page from the Apple playbook to depict it as a malevolent power who could snuff out innovation in the quest for its own growth. During this year’s Super Bowl broadcast, Motorola aired a commercial for its Android-powered Xoom tablet that inverted Apple’s famous spot, depicting a grey civilization of unthinking masses kept anesthetized by iPod-like devices.
Even Apple has unwittingly contributed to the sense that it has become too arrogant for its own good, with TV spots that declare snootily, “If you don’t have an iPhone, you don’t have an iPhone.” The simplicity of that message backfired as critics used it to mock the company on blogs and video posts.
For the moment, of course, the critics have quieted their voices, though some grumbled quietly about media overkill in the coverage of Mr. Jobs’ passing.
But in death, as in life, Mr. Jobs made it easy to spread the word. Wednesday evening’s news was communicated in the company’s signature minimalist aesthetic, with a black-and-white photo of the company’s co-founder in his signature black mock turtleneck, posted on apple.com. Within hours, printouts of that same page were appearing in locations outside Apple stores and at impromptu shrines to Mr. Jobs, from New York to Palo Alto to Beijing.
Editor's Note: An earlier online version of this article incorrectly reported that Samsung made the Xoom. The error has been rectified.