I'm the first to admit that I'm an iNut or an iFan or however else those of us whose lives have been changed by the sublime design simplicity of Apple products should call themselves. Bottom line: iGetit.
These days, though, I am also iIrked, mostly by the tone of the technological giant's latest marketing push, those "Designed by Apple" print ads and "Our Signature" TV spots unveiled at the Worldwide Developer Conference last month. They border on the messianic. True, Apple invented something as essential to life as sex with its iPhones and iPads and iPods, but it doesn't feel right to be told so. It's like having a God who comes right out and asks for gratitude rather than being one who happily waits for its supplicants to feel it and then give it of their own accord.
Advertising campaigns have always been reflections of a corporation's mind and soul, so it's no surprise that the iWatchers out there – those people who make a career out of analyzing "Apple culture" – look to the new campaign as an indication of how the company is navigating the choppy waters of competition (hello, Samsung) as well as the new corporate zeitgeist post-Steve Jobs. It's a way of reading the mind of someone who doesn't like to submit to questions, whose character has long been one of secrecy.
The campaign consists of images of people using Apple products as part of their everyday lives, imagining how they interact with the world. The scripts for the two-page newspaper ads and 60-second commercials also explain, in part, what the designers think about before they create a new product:
Who will it help?
Will it make life better?
Does it deserve to exist?
We spend a lot of time on a few great things until every idea we touch enhances each life it touches.
Tone is everything in life and the suggestion of sentimental self-regard in these promos makes me want to turn off my iPad, even though I'm writing on it at the moment – of course. Sure, the painstaking perfection of a product before its launch is one of Apple's legacies – and who doesn't recognize that tech devices have changed the way we do things? But iPhones as the meaning of life? It could be a Monty Python script. Expressed earnestly, the sentiment is called hubris, an affliction of excessive pride that rarely ends well. And as more than one ad guru has said, the art of advertising is not in whacking people over the head about how great you are. It's in making you feel it.
When you're a company on the rise, as Apple once was, you can take risks and be cheeky: Witness the success of its four-year Mac vs. PC campaign, in which two actors personifed the differences between the two brands of computers. When you become an integral part of people's lives, however, you can easily rub them the wrong way if the message seems too smug. That was the issue, reportedly, with the "Genius Bar" commercials aired last summer at the London Olympics. Featuring the legendary Apple customer helpers, the ads painted Mac users as a bit dim. After a few weeks, the commercials disappeared.
One keen iWatcher is Ken Segall, a former creative director at TBWA/Chiat/Day who spent years working with Jobs to market the company's products and is the author of the 2012 book Insanely Simple: The Obsession That Drives Apple's Success. "To some degree Apple has always been the most human technology company," Segall says on the phone from New York. "They have always been able to connect with their customers ... and they may be feeling that they're losing that in the heat of competition."
Until it comes out with a new product, the current campaign is a placeholder for the company, Segall surmises. "Lots of complaints about Apple these days is that they're overdue for new products, even though you look historically at how long it has been [between new product launches] ... and this is three years after iPad, so they're due but not really overdue. They've pretty much announced that they will have new products in the fall."
Part of the team that created the popular "Think Different" campaign – including the commercial "Here's to the crazy ones," an ode to the crazy, creative people who changed the world – Segall remembers how that period was "Jobs's defining moment." It was 1997, the company was on the verge of bankruptcy and the entrepreneur (who had been ousted in 1985) had just returned to Apple, which would experience its renaissance under his genius. (A version of the game-changing "Here's to the Crazy Ones" commercial, in which Jobs reads the script, was even played at his memorial service.) "People talk about what Steve would have done [now] ... and, given that we know what Steve did do, I wonder if the tone of this [new campaign] would appeal to him," Segall says, adding that Jobs would often veto ideas that didn't "feel like Apple."
It isn't just a question, though, of the company walking that fine line between mass appeal and unseemly hubris. Unwittingly, the campaign also makes us think about how much we have let technology intrude on our lives. We can all think of a hundred ways technology has made life better – and even more on how it has made life worse. Couples who have instigated "no screen" rules in the bedroom understand how the promise of community interconnection interferes with the one-on-one connection that is the heart of meaningful intimacy. And if I'm having dinner with people who can't help themselves from having a "conversation" with invisible friends under the lip of the table rather than one with present ones sitting around it, I feel a little sadder about the state of the world. We're at this interesting point where we may acknowledge that technological devices are deeply embedded in human culture, but we are also wary of their influence over how we function as a society.
To be honest, it was the line about the designers thinking about whether a product "deserves to exist" that really switched off my enthusiasm button. The Apple gods are going to decide how I will live (and improve) my life based on which products they deem essential? I just had a new feeling: iQuit.