Mar 10

Playing it safe with iPhone

I like my Apple to be brash. Unafraid. Gleefully killing products in their prime. Taking risks in unproven markets. Making other companies look cowardly. What I love about Apple is that they never play it safe.

Well, almost never.

I’m honestly puzzled why, after three years, the newest iPhone ad looks pretty much like the first iPhone ad. If you weren’t paying close attention to this newest spot, you might well think you’d seen it before.

It’s about Apps, of course — and I’m 100% in favor of that. Apps have changed the world, and Apps have become iPhone’s crushing advantage. It’s just that there are a thousand creative ways to talk about Apps. And it’s very un-Apple to do the same thing over and over and over.

But wait, you say. The Mac vs. PC campaign has been running even longer. It sure has. And the beauty of it is, every spot tells a fresh story. The characters change appearance, they talk about different things, they use props, guest characters appear — in other words, it’s a real campaign. People actually talk about it. When was the last time you heard someone raving about “that new iPhone commercial”?

The production technique is stale (still photo of iPhone in hand with a finger moving over it) and even the words are becoming suspect. I was pretty shocked to hear the Exedrin-quality last line, “That’s why I don’t go anywhere without my iPhone.”

Maybe I’m not the target with these ads, but I should be. In a marketplace where word of mouth is everything, you want to keep giving your owners the ammunition to enthusiastically recruit friends and family.

Apple has always taken bold leaps because it’s in their nature to do so. In the case of iPhone, they have gale force winds at their backs, so stretching creatively is literally a no-risk situation. A little fire can only help. Between Apple and Chiat, there isn’t the remotest chance of creating ads that will bring the empire down. It’s only advertising. It’s there to get people excited.

As far as I can tell, there’s only one reason on earth why Apple keeps running these ads: they work. And make no mistake, it is terrifically hard to knock success. However, this is the “don’t rock the boat” school of marketing — and it’s completely out of character for Apple. I’d say it might even be dangerous, with new and better smartphones popping up around every corner.

This is one boat that could use some serious rocking.

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  • sfmitch

    I am going to take the counter-argument.

    It’s not about playing it safe or rocking the boat, but rather about what works. These ads work!!

    Apple is selling the iPhone by showing ease of use & the enormous universe of Apps. Aren’t those the 2 best competitive advantages that the iPhone has?

    This ad appeals to non-iPhone owners (wow, that looks easy and really useful. It also appeals to existing iPhone/iPod Touch owners – do I have that app? The ad is nicely paced and shows off the iPhone’s strengths by showing, rather than telling.

  • Agreed. In fact, I would propose an app called TV Spot Generator. Simply plug in the app of your choice, and it generates an Apple TV spot based on that app. It wouldn’t be terribly hard to do….

  • high fivers

    These new iPhone ads are family centered. They are promoting the phone and the apps to an audience not typically known for technical intuition.

  • ChuckO

    Is Apple in a mindshare battle with itself? Do they not want to muddy the iPad waters with some bold iPhone ads? Maybe they are waiting for the initial iPad surge to clear and then come out swinging with new ads this summer with the latest version?

  • ken segall

    Geez, guys, I thought I was supposed to be the Apple fanboy around here. You’re all way too forgiving :) I don’t think there’s any such thing as “holding back” on the creative until the iPad wave passes. You go for the jugular every time out. That’s the Chiat/Apple way. Besides, the iPad stuff is looking very much like the iPhone and iPod stuff, so I doubt that there is any secret plan. It is probably exactly what it appears to be: Apple is sticking with a formula because it works. That’s just not the feisty spirit I love to see in Apple.

    It’s okay if they want to do a spot that’s family-oriented, for those less technical. But again, there’s no requirement to do it the same way they’ve been doing things for three years. There’s a world of creative possibility out there. Apple and Chiat live for stretching the boundaries. That’s why this formula thing surprises me.

  • neilw

    After having defended the low-key iPad advertising approach, I’ll flip the other way and agree with this post. I thought that, early on, just focusing on showing the apps was great. But now that they’ve done a million or so of these ads, I don’t even pay attention to them anymore, because when one comes on, I can’t quickly tell if I’ve seen it before, and even if I haven’t there’s not much compelling reason to tune in. With the iPad ad, there was a newness of seeing the apps in large size that made it more compelling for me.

    Of course, I already own an iPod Touch, so just seeing app demos doesn’t do much for me. Maybe for those without one, continuing to beat the drum about all the cool apps is effective enough. But it does feel awfully conservative in light of the flood of viable competitors on the market….

  • Jimi

    I’m totally with Ken on this one. It feels like Apple sent all of their creatives on vacation after they finished the iPhone. Their campaigns have been identical, and their new products have looked identical… It’s like within Apple, the person that does anything to upset the current cash raking equilibrium will find themselves executed in town square, and they’re paralyzed because of it.

    The problem here, of course, is that people will eventually get bored of it all. I can hear fanboys crying as I typed that. However, it’s true, evolution is important to everything’s survival. This is commonly referred to as the Madonna principal, I draw the courts attention to evidence baggy A containing one majorly weather beaten old lady. Re-invention is the key to longevity…

    So maybe the question is; what is the next evolution of the Apple? They’ve done flamboyant with the aqua macs, and they’ve done minimalist with their latest creations… Flaminalist perhaps? Self-immolating products for the 21st century… I’d better trade mark that quick.

  • ken segall

    I don’t think Apple is oblivious to the state of iPhone advertising. They’re way too smart for that. I really think they’re just riding the wave on this one, and riding it a bit too long. Sooner or later, there has to be a major refresh. Makes sense to do that with the next big iPhone release, coming this summer.

  • Oh, there’s another reason. They are preparing the replacement for the iPhone 3GS and don’t want to steal thunder from that? You think?

  • hey ken, i’ll gladly forego ‘brash’ and ‘unafraid’ for a spot that’s interesting and smart … this series just seems to be moving catalog shot of the apps store … zzzzzzz …

    put it in the hands of Mac and PC, let them joust about it, anything, just not the tech equivalent of a Domino’s spot …

  • ken segall

    I agree wholeheartedly. I wouldn’t get mixed up with semantics. Interesting and smart would be fine with me. I just think that stepping outside of the comfort zone would be the braver thing to do.

  • Synthmeister

    OTOH, Apple was continually bashed with the Mac ads in the 90s because they often failed to clearly elucidate the advantages of the Mac vs. PC. The current iPhone ads do this very, very efficiently. They virtually eliminate hype. They show a real person, using a real iPhone using real apps. The product is front and center and given the miserable state of the competition, it is hard to fault Apple for that approach.

    Note, for example, the latest Palm Pre Plus ads include the disclaimer, “simulated screen,” and I think you yourself pointed out all the ridiculous stealth bombers and robot arms with the Droid ads.

  • ken segall

    I can’t tell the backgrounds of various people who comment here, so I’m not sure if I’m talking to an business person, creative person or just an interested observer. So forgive me if this sounds preachy or condescending…

    Hundreds of ads fail, even though logically they meet all the criteria: they’re simple, clearly state the advantage, show off the product, etc. What I’m talking about is really a creative issue. If you repeat the same formula for years, it gets tired unless you find new ways to pump it up. What Apple is doing does work, and surely that’s why they keep doing it. But this is Apple. It’s in their blood to surprise us with great products and with great advertising. That’s why so many creative guys in the ad biz would give anything to work on Apple’s business. So I’m not faulting Apple for missing the mark with these iPhone ads. They’re actually hitting the mark perfectly. They’re just not rising to the high creative standards that Apple has set for itself.

  • CB

    “… And the beauty of it is, every spot tells a fresh story.”

    I think that the new ads *do* tell a fresh story. It’s about what people are doing with their iPhones in different situations… travel and on hold for customer service rep. Typical situations we could all find ourselves in. Makes iPhone more relatable, more friendly, more “wow, I didn’t know I could do all that.”

  • Synthmeister

    I’m a creative type but mostly music, I dabble in video and graphics, and I’d agree with that assessment of the ads from a purely artistic point of view. But I think Apple still has a another year of simply showing what the iPhone and iPad can do. It is that far ahead of the competition. But Apple tends to milk their ad campaigns for quite a while. And I definitely prefer the current approach to the stealth bomber/robot approach.

  • “They’re actually hitting the mark perfectly. They’re just not rising to the high creative standards that Apple has set for itself.”

    exactly ken, it seems that while hitting that mark, they’ve made it much bigger and brought it much closer … i never thought it was about clear efficiency or eliminating hype (that’s what advertising is, basically) but about engaging the consumer and making them want to use that product, not just a dry run through the usage…

    these new spots are just video catalogs for the app store and while showing the depth of apps (in a sterile studio environment with a dedicated server nearby to make sure they don’t get drop out) it says nothing about real-life applications : try booking that hotel room in San Fran from a greasy spoon on the interstate, or link to your business email while in the parking lot of the Target in Parsippany enroute to your next stop, or getting movie showtimes while on Route 9W, NOW you’re saying something, …

    ken, i suggest that apple man up and get back to (as old as it is) making fun of the competitions weak spots while showcasing their strengths, it’s how the consumers talk to each other about their smartphones, isn’t it?