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Fast Co Design (or is it Co.Design? Sigh-Designers) has published an article titled, “In 20 Years We’re All Going to Realize This Apple Ad is Nuts.” It’s about how Apple is “consecrating” behaviour that is antisocial with its ad. Everyone in their ad is choosing the screen over real interactions. But why would we see this as crazy? We’re already doing this. Every generation since TV was invented has been taught to venerate what’s  behind a screen. Screens deliver our myths, shows us our gods, and defines our norms. Media mediates our reality.

And then we developed the ability to put ourselves on those screens. And now the only way we can achieve this ‘enhanced life’ is by experiencing everything through them. Just because it’s not a chemical doesn’t mean the content we consume through our eyes, ears and fingertips are not capable of causing chemical changes in our brains and bodies as strong as many drugs.  With sharing comes social validation, so that these images not only last, but they’re made more intense when we put them online.

But it feels wrong, because we’ve always told ourselves that we should be more ‘in the moment’, focused on the ‘hear and now’. And that’s impossible if you’re focused on somebody’s Snapchat at a Yakitori. Apple is merely removing the guilt of by playing it back to us through a screen, thereby making it ‘normal’. Aspirational even.

Twenty years from now, we’re going to wonder why they chose to depict what will by then become perfectly normal behaviour.

We’re already starting to forget that only a few years ago waving a mobile device around in a crowded restaurant, using a mobile device during class, taking pictures of ourselves making out in the street or even talking on a cell phone in public wasn’t aspirational, it was the height of rudeness.

What Apple is doing with this ad, whether its creators are conscious of it or not*, is making it not only socially acceptable to do a lot of previously-unacceptable things with their products, but aspirational. The soft focus, mood lighting, good-looking actors, and charming music all help to make you want to do these things too. And thus the ad makes it easier to use their product in certain contexts than before. At the very least, it’ll make you feel differently about your next encounter with the douchebag who’s loudly live-chatting with his wife next to you at the bar.

*Not saying Apple and Media Arts Lab sat down and said, “our objective is to make socially unacceptable uses for our products acceptable,” but I’m not denying it either. For a company founded on the belief that product design and marketing are synonymous, this ad is another way to enhance the experience of the product, by making it less unpleasant to use in public. As fake adman Don Draper once said, advertising “screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing is OK. You are OK.”

But none of this has anything to do with why people are so disturbed by the ad itself.

What’s weird is, Apple is speaking to the multitude (“…every life it touches”), while showing you images of humans dependent on its products. The end result is that you can’t help but feel insignificant, yet hooked at the same time. They’ve laid out their accomplishment: designing products that have re-designed humans.

From the classroom full of socially-engineered kids (narrator, “this is what matters”) to the couple who seem to love the image of themselves as a couple as much if not more than they love each other (“will it make life better”), every sentence is about the company and every image is about how much your reality has been manipulated by that company since birth.

Where Apple’s old ads were about our relationships with each other (iPhone 4 Facetime), or about Apple’s relationship to its competitors (Mac vs PC), this ad is about our relationship with a corporation. And that is a relationship between junkie and pusher. Apple’s commercial holds up a mirror, and reveals a truth we don’t want to see: We’re so hooked on this ‘enhanced’ life that we can’t go back to the ‘unenhanced’ one. It’s Skynet calling, and it’s letting you know there will be no war, because you’re already enslaved.


Categories: Communications & Media Studies, Pop Culture, Uncategorized.

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10 Responses

  1. cmoney2013-10-17 @ 15:27

    Very interesting piece. Another observation: look through the 4th wall. The very act of watching this ad is anti-social! When are you seeing that apple ad (or reading fast co.’s piece, or reading this critique of it)? Either while flicking through channels or cruising online because you can’t find anything better to do.

    “this ad is about our relationship with a corporation. And that is a relationship between junkie and pusher. Apple’s commercial holds up a mirror, and reveals a truth we don’t want to see: We’re so hooked on this ‘enhanced’ life that we can’t go back to the ‘unenhanced’ one.”

    This is also interesting, but I’m also not sure it’s a bad thing. What I mean is, there have been numerous technological advances that humans fairly quickly became dependent on. For any society that has developed rapid transit (i.e. the vast majority of the modern world), can you envision life without it? Either without a car, or if you’re a city dweller, without bus/rail/taxis? Or hell, the internet itself? This all seems like a fairly natural progression. Millions/billions of people seem to like this stuff.. who are we to criticize?

  2. The weirder thing about the ad than how they present the activities is how it immediately reveals its own strategy. The first words are “This is it. This is what matters. The experience of a product. How will it make someone feel?”. Apple is coming right out and telling the viewer that their strategy is to play on the viewer’s base sentimentality and consumer affect, and they expect that the viewer will not only buy their products despite this ploy but because of it. The ad is genius in the same way that nuclear fission is. If you don’t get that, think of this strategy being used in a commercial for cigarettes.

  3. Too busy to give a full comment, but I think you might have gotten it on the reverse. It’s not that apple makes anti-socialism aspirational – that’s a secondary recourse to a primary agenda, which is to fit into how and why people already want and need to distance themselves through their phones – and this distancing could be said among other things to be a way in which liberal tolerance has made a form of anxiety issue w.r.t social shit, and this recourse into technology as aspirational is a mask to cover up, to say that it is okay, that it is cool, but coolness comes from being anti-social through apple stuff, so people know you’re actually being cool and not being anti-social. It’s a redefinition. Maybe.

  4. fabius2013-10-19 @ 12:52

    It’s great having the appropriate Futurama video for very occasion.

  5. OccasionallyClever2013-10-22 @ 18:33

    cmoney – Thanks. I agree with what you’re saying about technology. Maybe what we’re feeling is anxiety because things are changing and we naturally resist change, so these ads are there to show us that it’s desirable to embrace these products. In the same way that car ads in the 1950s were about how a Cadillac brings your family together (picnics, road trips, country drives). Maybe it’s because we’ve been trained to be suspicious of such messages, because we know that if a peddler is actively saying it, something else is being obscured. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, because he’s corrupting your kids and destroying the world for your grandkids. Not that it’s Apple’s or anybody else’s job to do this, but it would have been interesting to see what the response would be if the message was more along your lines: We make things that take parts from you that you won’t get back, but it’s also giving you abilities you’ve never had. Rather than the all-earnest message of “We make things that give you abilities you never had.”

    Something else that I just realized while writing these responses: We aren’t going to be seeing anything dramatically new from Apple in a while/ever. I know this because this is an anthem spot for Apple. Usually, anthem spots are created to give voice to a brand manifesto. And manifestos exist because the brand has done some soul-searching to arrive at what people in the company, along with the agency, have agreed the company stands for. This is how they see themselves in relation to the consumer, this is why their company exists. Usually it’s the rearguard action of a company that has lost its way. “We’re under attack! Get the guys in marketing and retail to bolster our defenses and reassure the followers with words! What can we say that other people aren’t saying that will make them want to buy our stuff?” In the past their products functioned so well that you bought them without having to be told why you’re buying them. Or rather, the product itself told you why you were buying it. Now, with so many competitors aping everything about Apple except its price, even giving you innovations that Apple hadn’t thought of, Apple feels it needs to remind you of who the granddaddy is and where your allegiances should lie. Which was not the MO of Apple under Steve Jobs, who looked to solve this problem by developing products to fill niches with no real competitors. The last time they were beat to shit by competitors, they ran ‘Crazy Ones’, an ad about daring the impossible, and then nearly killed themselves making the iPod. This time they run an ad about craftsmanship and small details and how you’ll feel them even if you can’t tell the difference.

    There’s a longer version of this manifesto on their site: “If you are busy making everything, How can you perfect anything?” It’s all defensive. “You may rarely look at it, but you’ll always feel it.” Really? Then why do they have to tell you you’ll feel it? Because they aren’t making anything that CAN showcase a marked difference. Because they’re worried that you can’t.

    It’s the magician whose tricks have grown stale, explaining how well he does them in the hopes that you’ll buy another ticket. A great magician would have invented new tricks.

    GuyFox – I’m not entirely sure I follow. Cigarette companies can’t make claims to the lines following those opening sentences. They can’t believably say they exist to create products that makes life better, or that said products deserve to exist. Apple has long communicated the belief that the product and the feelings it evokes in the user is what matters to them. The difference is that they used to communicate that in the products themselves. So much so that they could run ads featuring nothing but a hand or silhouette, interacting with the hardware like a magician’s volunteer. It’s not magic if the magician has to tell you what’s so special about what’s being shown.

    Nachlasse – I agree with your first statement, but I don’t agree with your assessment of the primary agenda. I think my initial reaction to the ad, and my desire to deconstruct it, stems from bewilderment at why Apple would run this in the first place. Hindsight being 20/20, I realize that running this ad is the equivalent of building Hadrian’s Wall. It’s a sign that they’re down-shifting. When you’re on a tear, you don’t need to tell everyone around you where your boundaries are, because you’re just going to subjugate and destroy whoever you run into. It’s when you can’t expand any more that you start taking steps back and laying out what you ‘stand for’ and why you ‘deserve to exist’. The primary motive of this ad is to shore up defenses, to tell customers, shareholders and employees why they must all be good Romans–not because Rome is clearly the best, but because Rome ISN’T anymore, at least not clearly. Hence the need to reassure. Join us because “look what we’ve done for you” or at least because “we have desirable values” instead of “look what we CAN do for you”.

    The secondary recourse of showing people that it’s aspirational to be ignorant of your surroundings and subsumed by your device is to reinforce the status quo. Cognitive dissonance: everyone would rather Apple invent teleportation/telepathy so we don’t have to ride trains, or share business-trip yakitori through a screen, or believe we’re in love because we seem like we are on instagram, but since Apple can’t do that, they’re going to show us why the way things are is just great. Except we don’t need to be told that things are just great. So they’re likely really showing us because they want us to believe that none of it would be possible without them. Loyalty based on pedigree. Good luck with that.

    So I guess Fast Company’s Mark Wilson was half-right, twenty years from now we’ll think this ad is nuts, but not because Apple forgot that product design is about people. It’ll be because tablets and smart phones and Apple will have about as much relevance then as tamagotchis, VHS rentals and Xerox do today. It’s not something you can say about “Crazy Ones” or “1984”, which were ads with stories that carried deeper meaning because they spoke to us as humans. Which isn’t to say any of these are less manipulative/bottom line focused/amoral, just that they were more effective.

    If Apple wants people to rally around them again, to sell more widgets, even if those widgets aren’t as ‘magical’ as they once were, the ad they needed to run would have repositioned Apple as the challenger again. More importantly, they need to convince consumers that buying the products will make them feel like doers and rebels. That’s what makes Apple ‘cool’, and it’s the real reason why somebody will spend hours masturbating with an iPad while telling themselves they got it so that they could ‘get so much more done’.

    Thanks to all of you for raising such fascinating points. It’s taken me to a new place on this that I could never have gotten to on my own. Now whether where I’m at now is any closer to the crux of why FastCo and so many others reacted against the ad remains to be seen.

  6. The analogy with cigarette companies requires a mutatis mutandis clause. Imagine cigarette companies coming out and nakedly displaying their strategy, like ‘Our product will kill you, cost you thousands and make you stink, and the only thing differentiating our product from our competitors’ is this ad and the package design, onto which you will project affect.’ And having it be successful. Apple’s products are less deadly, at least for those who don’t have to manufacture them, but the communication in the ad is just about as frank and blatant and shameless.

    Your point about the ad being retrospective, which indicates that Apple has peaked and can only go down is interesting because political discourse usually follows the same pattern. You know a regime/empire is on its way out when it becomes obsessed with its glorified past/founding myth. To take the obvious American example, constitutional amendments used to be possible and the debates about them were about what kind of society they were meant to shape. The discourse was future-oriented. You know there’s trouble on the horizon now because of the fetishization of the founding fathers and the constitution as it was originally formulated, while it was still pure and uncorrupted. It’s driving while looking through the rear-view mirror, not the windshield. The same thing happened with the Soviets. They were always obsessed with what the great fathers of socialism *really meant*, but the cult of interpreting the true meaning of Marx & Lenin got much more serious and arcane after Brezhnev. You’re welcome to speculate about Bo Xilai’s fate and the cult of Mao he was trying to build up. Was he in danger of becoming more holy than the pope?

  7. OccasionallyClever2013-10-23 @ 23:35

    Thanks GuyFox. Very well put. In Walter Isaacson’s book on Steve Jobs, the last project he blessed, and one he never got around to finishing, was ‘revolutionizing TV’. And not just Apple TV, but like, building Plasma screens with built-in iTunes, or whatever. I can foresee a scenario in which Apple doggedly pursues the project despite rapidly changing times because ‘it’s Steve’s last vision’, even though that is actually what hell is for Steve: watching as his company self-destructs because it’s too afraid to veer from his dictates. But that’s all conjecture.

    I think about Camel Crush cigarettes. They make no sense to me because I either smoke regular cigarettes or menthols, why would I change my mind halfway through? Unless I’m smoking for the first time, and every pack comes with the risk/added expenditure of having my ID confiscated, in which case a convertible cigarette is perfect for my ‘can’t decide if I can pull off being black/white’ adolescent identity flux.

    On the whole I find cigarette advertising really bad, which I attribute to the fact that no ad jury would ever give an award out to a cigarette ad anymore. Not because ad award shows aren’t immoral, but because they don’t want to be seen as immoral. Maybe in a bizarro developed country with no legal restrictions on cigarette advertising, you’d get an ad that showed kids how smoking makes overachievers and all but the one cool teacher who also smokes leave them alone (it’s not until the target grows up that they realize ‘the cool teacher’ was really a big loser/pedophile). Or maybe it’s an ad that shows you how smoking leads to an early death, but all the people who love you will cry round your bedside and go to your funeral, and then years later they all die alone in nursing homes because they care too much about clinging to this mortal coil. The gifts of cigarettes are perverse, but they are precisely what their users want.

  8. OccasionallyClever2013-10-24 @ 00:07

    As for Bo Xilai and the Chinese situation, it may have been more the fact that foreigners got involved, i.e. had Wang Lijun not fled to the US consulate with evidence, it may have been possible to cover everything up. Once facts of corruption leaves the country, it becomes a lot harder to control reality. For every Ai Weiwei there are thousands of artists who’ve disappeared for lesser offenses in their art.

    It may also be the system clamping down on a rising would-be dictator. Or it may have to do with planned economic reforms that he would never support. I can’t say for certain because their government is so opaque. One thing I would point out is that the fates of failed politicians in authoritarian regimes mirror that of gangsters: for most the only ways out are death or jail. Likely because public opinion has no bearing on your opponents’ behavior.

  9. Tripp Hanning2014-08-30 @ 17:00

    cmoney mentions tech advancements that we soon prefer not to live without: rapid transit, the internet, Apple products.
    One of these things is NOT like the others.

    Yes, they all enable us to become more effective consumers, but only the ipad’s specific purpose is a twist on facial recognition adverts.
    Rapid transit and the internet can help you accomplish way more than can an ipad … but since our social urge is to be seen as more conspicuous[ly effective] consumers, Apple’s only going to fail if they let another company[‘s products] do that more effectively.

  10. Nessuno2014-10-03 @ 13:25

    Technological advancement and political decline are ostensibly complete parallels.


    rapid transit -> the internet -> Apple products.

    Diminishing returns? Consider political discourse, like our diminishing returns on technology our discourse is also diminishing -not the volume of discourse mind you 24 hour news has assured us of that- the substance is diminishing, the meaning is vapid.

    More interestingly it seems to be moving in lock step with diminishing resources and when I say resources I really mean oil. Oil was the big bang for our society, as we move farther from that bang we continuously become more constrained because norms or symbols become more and more entrenched. Resources diminish which in turns diminishes ability to create.

    Without paint there is no picture I suppose?

    Pardon me, this piece and accompanying comments sparked a playful thought. Mind you I suppose that’s what the site is for… Thanks for having me

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