Jan 14

The Mac birthday video should inspire everyone: including Apple

Apple’s new-product videos have become as famous as its devices. But not necessarily in a good way.

Let’s just say they’re a bit predictable.

You know the routine: Jony Ive and assorted Apple leaders appear on a white background, gushing over the product to someone off-camera, with occasional cutaways to beauty shots and explanatory graphics.

The format has been repeated so often, it’s become the standard for parody videos by pros and amateurs alike. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but the flattery part ran its course after the first five years.

So it was with great joy that I watched Apple’s latest product video — which is actually an old-product video.

The Mac 30th Birthday piece is all about a computer, but the story isn’t told by Apple people. We hear it from those who have used a Mac to have impact in this world — each speaking from a different perspective.

There isn’t a white background in sight. The speakers appear in their natural habitats, which are colorful and interesting. The music is really good. There’s energy in the edit. It feels honest and authentic.

For this special occasion, Apple wouldn’t even dream of applying the musty old format.

Well … new product launches are pretty special occasions too. Yet the world’s most un-formulaic company continues to crank out formulaic product-launch videos. How come?

Some may not remember, but there was a time when Apple wasn’t quite so rigid with its new-product video format.

For certain launches, it would sign up known personalities, pledge them to secrecy, let them live with the product, then shoot testimonials on location. We’d hear these people describe in their own words how the product would change their lives — instead of listening to Apple leaders on a superlative high.

[Update: thanks to Lester Nelson for pointing to a good example in the iMac G4 launch video.]

Honestly, I can’t recall if these videos were accompanied by the “standard” product video. Possibly. But that alone says something about which video was more memorable.

Imagine how different it would be if Apple broke the mold for its next product announcement. For an iWatch, perhaps?

Instead of Jony Ive talking about purity of design, what if we saw an assortment of interesting outsiders — from sports, politics, art, music, technology, whatever — talking about how the new device allows them to do things they couldn’t do before?

It would be a more heartfelt, more seductive introduction.

Sorry, but it’s just a fact of life: it’s always more effective to have others sing your praises than to sing them yourself.

As far as I can tell, there’s only one reason this doesn’t happen today: it would break the format.

For a company that thrives on creativity, that’s not a great answer. For a company that employs great creative people, it’s a squandering of resources.

Like many, I would be ecstatic if Apple’s next product video made me go “wow, cool” — as opposed to “good lord, not again.”

All that aside: Happy Birthday, Mac. Look at you, all grown up.

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  • Andrew F.

    I understand your thinking, Ken, but what if the average person doesn’t see those videos with the same tired eyes that us tech people see them? What if, according to Apple’s data, the videos really work? I mean, they’re clearly not meant to be very emotional. They exist to give general harmless insights into the processes and thinking behind the product.

    Personally, whenever a new product comes out and I watch the videos, I don’t cringe or find them embarrassing. I think that’s more a matter of the speaker’s performance than the content. For example, Scott Forestall’s bulging eyes in the original iPad video kinda weirded me out, but honestly I don’t know if I’ll ever get sick of hearing Jony Ive find a new way to talk about simplicity.

  • Stan V

    Let’s take the asymmetric blades introduced in a recent MacBook version. How would an average user describe this without “insider” knowledge.

    “Ok, maybe it’s slightly more silent than usual, now that you mentioned it.”

    I was certainly more impressed with the people of Apple describing the innovation themselves.

    Now, of course, it’s certainly nice when you can have people react positively to your product, but Apple’s products are revolutionary only once in a while, 5 to 10 years, so what about those 20 or so products released in-between?

    They’re not that impressive on their own as to warrant “wow” reactions from strangers, and creating a video where people would look astonished at a 1mm thinner iPad would look even worse than Jony Ive simply explaining how they did it.

    The thinking behind incremental updates can only be described by insiders. I don’t think the format was ever the problem with the recent cringe-worthy product introduction videos. It’s the attitude, they’re pushing too hard, and using the world “revolutionary” too much, to the point it looks sad. If they can be a bit more subtle, and it’ll work nicely.

  • Envy

    I quite enjoy the Jony Ive product videos, even after all this time. They may be slightly stale but it’s always good to hear the design philosophy behind a new release. That said, they sometimes smack of arrogance rather than pride in design. And as you say, you cannot beat seeing a product “in the real world” with real users. It conveys the story better than anything else and shows the audience what’s possible. The recent iPad ads are case in point.

  • They can include both the designers/engineers involved AND artists, musicians, real life users, etc. That’s what they used to do.

  • ksegall

    I agree that these videos do “work.”They convey the strategy, they let you hear “why and how” from the horses’ mouths, etc. All of that is good.

    It’s just that when you see a few of these videos every year — for more than ten years — you tire of them. Even the joke versions have become tedious.

    One of the reasons Apple is so popular with artists, designers, musicians, filmmakers, writers, etc. is that it is a champion of creativity. So when I see it cling to a format, or take a “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude, it seems out of character.

    A lot of people have been disappointed by the content of Apple launch events since Steve passed away. I defend Apple on this, simply because there will never be another Steve and the current leaders speak as best they can. However, that doesn’t mean they can’t open the windows and let in a little fresh air.

    I think more interesting product videos would help. Not only would they improve the events, they’d be more likely to be shared and seen by more people.

  • ksegall

    I agree with much of this.

  • ksegall

    “They may be slightly stale” is my whole point. There’s always a creative way to convey the same information in a fresher execution.

    I hear what you’re saying about the arrogance factor. Personally, I just take it as “overly hyped pride” — but I agree that the information might be more effective coming from those in the real world.

  • ksegall

    Thank you!!!

    I couldn’t remember which launch videos worked as I described, and this is certainly one of them. Annie Liebovitz, Seal, Francis Ford Coppola — not a bad bunch of people to offer a testimonial about how the new iMac helped them. A hell of a lot more interesting than just having Jony and Phil doing their “revolutionary” bit.

    I’ll add this to my post now.

  • ksegall

    You make a good point about the incremental updates, which are many. You’re right that it would be tough to get meaningful testimonials on products like that.

    Simply using the current video format less often would still be a step forward. But…

    Still, I think the opportunities arise more than once every few years. Plus there are many other ways to create a video than the testimonials I suggested.

    With the launch of iPad Air, Apple created its typical product video, but then it added “Life on iPad” to the mix. Having both in action together is also a step forward.

    My main point is that there is no need to keep repeating the same format over and over again for more than a decade. Many have tired of it. Apple attracts great creative talent and I’d love to see it unleashed. An inspiring product video can take many forms.

  • Andrew F.

    Completely agree there, their product unveilings aren’t as substantive as they once were, although the announcement of iOS 7 was an exception. I think that whole event was one of Apple’s best keynotes ever, with or without Jobs. They seem to be less uptight at WWDC than at other events.

    Still, I remember when Jobs got up and announced his Digital Hub strategy and how keynote after keynote he explained how they were executing on that vision. He began a similar vision of iCloud in his final keynote, but Apple has only really talked about numbers and new features since then. Nobody in the keynotes is expressing the vision of where they’re headed, why they’re heading there, and how they’re doing it. Perhaps they want to be more oblique now that they’re no longer the scrappy underdog, but I find it unsettling nevertheless.

    Anyway, I’m hideously off-topic. I would like a new format for product videos but my fear with this post-Steve Apple is their proclivity for preciousness

  • Stan V

    I agree with everything you’re saying.

    The last couple of years are this moment in Apple’s life, when they start regarding their processes as magical, unsure which elements are mere happenstance, and which elements are part of their success formula. This makes corporations very resistant to change.

    But I also wonder, if those videos had less of Jony Ive’s designer-gibberish in them, while keeping everything else the same, would we be having this conversation…

  • “…has-been hippie Lee Clow…” Now that made me laugh.

  • Andrew F.

    He speaks a lot of truth. Obviously people are upset with Phil Schiller about that, but I have hope that Apple will get their footing eventually. At least we ought to be thankful Apple hasn’t played it safe with their marketing, they’re still taking risks.

    But still, he makes a great point that Apple is making too many one-off image brands. Enough already.

  • Andrew F.

    Getting off topic, it’s interesting to me the influence Terrence Malick seems to have had on the agency Apple uses to do their ads. In their verse ad in particular, not only is it strikingly Malick-esque, it uses music from his last movie To The Wonder. And like Malick, it was hugely divisive, drawing ire and praise with nearly equal passion.

    Apple can’t be accused of playing it safe when it’s primary influence on an entire ad campaign is a purely art house filmmaker like Malick. The criticism and praise even resemble one another: words like “pretentious” and “profound”, “elliptical”, “beautifully made”, etc….in the end though, both Apple, as a company, and Malick as an artist, are regarded as one-of-a-kind.