Nov 16

Apple ad blitz: four hits and a cringe

mostIs it my imagination, or has Apple been unusually active in the ad department lately?

Taken together, the company’s latest spots offer some hope for its advertising future — and then a warning as well.

Here are the ads, with a few observations to go with them.



Holiday spot: Frankie’s Holiday

There is no shortage of broadcast ads during the holidays. Or, I should say, there is no shortage of ads begging us to spend our holiday money, often in the most ungraceful ways.

It’s because of this advertising glut that we can better appreciate companies that avoid the hard sell and make the effort to add a little magic to the holidays.

Of course, creating a brand ad for this special time of the year isn’t entirely altruistic. The goal is to enhance the brand, which leads to happier customers, which leads to higher profits.

Just know that it takes considerable nerve for most companies to do this. A big holiday production has a short shelf life and can cost a fortune, and the return on investment is mostly theoretical.

That’s why most companies say “later” to the holiday brand ad and go directly for the selling jugular. “We have a duty to our shareholders,” they say.

Well, Apple has a duty to its shareholders too. But that hasn’t stopped it from offering up a brand ad like Frankie’s Holiday each holiday season. Far from a hard sell, it’s an imaginative, sweet and human spot built around a less-than-human character.

For production quality alone, it gets a 5-star rating. The sets are rich and the cast is perfect, especially the little girl. (Not easy to find child actors this good.)

Kudos to the creative team for giving us a take on Frankenstein’s monster that’s light years from the expected — more true to Shelley’s novel than most of the Hollywood versions we’ve seen.

Most of all, thank you Apple for not falling into the Jimmy Iovine trap of trotting out celebrities like you did last year. It’s when you tell a real story (like 2013’s Misunderstood) that you truly add to the holiday spirit.



MacBook Pro: Bulbs

I try not to get all emotional about these things, so please forgive this outburst: I think this is one of the greatest commercials Apple has ever made.

I’m surprised by my own reaction, because the pieces of this spot are actually built from the familiar. It employs a well-worn soundtrack (William Tell Overture) and the oldest trick in the advertising book — the montage.

But one doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel to make a point in a creative, memorable way. This spot is so artfully constructed, and so intensely energetic from the start, it literally embodies the ad’s concept. That being: ideas have tremendous power.

The montage is built upon the foundation of the recurring visual: a line of exploding light bulbs that seemingly goes on forever. I love that the images representing civilization’s greatest ideas are not the “usual suspects.” Depicting a range of great ideas allows the ad to weave in a sense of humor — thus toilet paper can share the stage with space exploration.

This is the intelligent wit I’ve always loved to see in Apple ads. A far, far cry from Drake pretending to fumble his weights in the latest Apple Music spot. (Hold that thought.)

If I had to whine about something — and of course I must! — it would be the payoff. This artful buildup of sound and images all leads to … the Touch Bar on the new MacBook Pro.

Not to diminish that cool bit of technology, but the concept of this commercial is so enormous that the ending lets some air out of the balloon. How perfect it would have been for the ad to simply end after the line: “Ideas push the world forward.” A quick fade to the Apple and the bigness of the ad would remain intact. (Of course, it would then be a brand ad, and not a MacBook Pro ad.)

But you know what? A great spot is a great spot. The strengths of an ad can far, far outshine its flaws. This is the new-century version of Think different, and I very much love it.



iPhone 7: Balloons

This is the ad that launched Apple’s recent flurry of advertising. It set the stage for the high-production pieces that followed.

Coming after a mostly lackluster year of advertising, it was the first one that made me perk up again.

If you’re a cynic, it’s easy to look at this spot and be amazed that so much attention was lavished — expensively — on one frill (full-screen balloons) that lives within one phone feature (Messages).

If you’re a marketing person, you might love it for exactly that reason. As the Official Simplicity Handbook states, saying one thing memorably can be a hell of a lot more effective than saying many things.

The idea here is that iPhone 7’s different features would be fleshed out in a series of separate ads. Like…



iPhone 7: Dive

Similar to Balloons, this high-production spot zeroes in on a single feature by taking an unexpected approach. And, like the earlier spot, most first-time mainstream viewers were probably scratching their heads, wondering what they were watching.

But that’s good, because I’m willing to bet they kept watching till the end. The unusual casting and music make it hard to turn away.

The payoff here is the stereo speakers built into iPhone 7, with the additional waterproof aspect treated visually. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether this is worthy of the campaign theme, “practically magic.”



Apple Music: Drake vs. Bench Press

Well, all good things must come to an end.

Compared to the imaginative and beautifully produced spots above, this one is just a clunker.

It’s vaguely amusing if you’re into Drake (and if you get the connection to the previous Taylor vs. Treadmill spot). But it’s amateurish and unfunny, especially in the way the “accident” is portrayed at spot’s end.

Part of the problem is the advertising-y theme line of this campaign: Distractingly good. That’s weak enough, but to build a campaign on celebrities suffering slapstick calamities because they are distracted by good music is kind of a stretch. It’s a lowbrow form of comedy.

One can’t say it’s wrong to create a celebrity campaign. Especially in the music industry, where we feel emotionally connected to our musical heroes. The issue here is more about creative quality.

Remember this ad from Apple? It was stacked with celebrities, but it was also fresh, human and newsworthy.

Unfortunately, the Drake ad is high on celebrity and low on idea. (Honestly, I still don’t know why listening to Apple Music is more “good” than listening to Spotify.)

I can’t help but feel we’re witnessing The Jimmy Iovine Effect. Iovine’s deep industry connections were a prime reason Apple bought Beats, and those connections are clearly getting a good workout.

In praise of consistency

These days, it’s a little hard to tell where Apple ads are coming from. The company continues to build its in-house marketing group, and in the process diminish its reliance on longtime agency Media Arts Lab.

Director Lance Acord was behind Apple’s holiday spots in 2013 (Misunderstood) and 2014 (The Song), both created by MAL. He was noticeably absent from last year’s Someday At Christmas holiday commercial featuring Steve Wonder and Andra Day.

Accord also directed Frankie’s Holiday, but MAL seems to be missing from the credits on this one. An interview with new Apple creative head Tor Myhren makes it sound like an internal Apple effort.

Here’s the thing. Apple advertising has been considered the “gold standard” in the industry for decades. It’s been the point of comparison for so many companies that wanted to achieve marketing success.

This didn’t happen because of a few great ads over the course of time. It happened because, under Steve Jobs, the ads were consistently creative. And that’s because Steve was a passionate marketer, actively involved in every major campaign.

Depending on your point of view, Apple has either lost its marketing consistency or has been losing it since Steve passed away.

Steve’s other talents aside, he was a single, marketing-savvy leader with terrific creative instincts. All work had to pass through him, and he was notorious for his lack of compromise.

We can only guess how Apple’s marketing process works today. What’s the role of Media Arts Lab? How much creative work is done in-house now? Is marketing influenced by a number of people, including Tor, Phil Schiller and Jimmy Iovine?

Advertising has always been one place that suffers mightily when there are too many cooks in the kitchen.


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  • How perfect it would have been for [Bulbs] to simply end after the line: “Ideas push the world forward.”

    Exactly. That was my immediate impression of Bulbs. Still doesn’t sit right.

    Balloons gave a nod to Albert Lamorisse’s Le Balloon rouge, right? That was the inescapable reference for me, anyway :-)

  • sfmitch

    I find the Bulbs ad to be horrific and completely unwatchable. It seems so obvious and paint by the numbers that it hurts my head.

    It also completely ridiculous to compare the Touch Bar to the great inventions of history.

    As much as I don’t like the ad, I LOVE the Touch Bar. I spent 5 minutes in the store and was completely wow’ed with how great it is.

    The Touch Bar seems like a complete afterthought (let’s show it for 2 seconds at the end).

    Big miss.

  • JimCracky

    so, the ad was effective?

  • 程肯

    I liked Frankenstein and the Diver ads. Memorable. The balloons ad was also good, but reminded me too much of Sony’s colours ad. As for bulbs, I kept thinking about all those bulbs they were destroying, presumably mostly in the computer, but still, it distracted me.

  • Kip Beatty

    Perhaps you can blame the ad, but you missed the point of Bulbs entirely. The ad didn’t claim the Touch Bar was the next BIG invention, it offered it as the latest and greatest tool to come up with the next BIG thing.

  • Galaxy_Surfer_007

    Misunderstood is a classic.

    But then so is, “Hi! I’m Janie Porsche and I saved Christmas!”

    As well as the whole series of ads:

    “I’m a Mac…”

  • -hh


    When an ad needs to LITERALLY have a line of text (its at 1:23) to explain
    its symbolism…

    …the symbolism has failed and thus, so has the ad.

    That’s why “bulbs” is a failure.

  • Arif Ahnan

    iPhone 7: The balloon is so interesting a nice feature
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    Obat Sipilis Yang Aman
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  • I very much appreciated your observations, Ken. I hope you don’t slow down in 2017.

  • Pingback: What Ken Segall says about Apple's new TV ads | Philip Elmer‑DeWitt()

  • Wish ads and other media would stop promoting the release of plastic balloons into the environment. That plastic can end up killing an innocent animal or sea creature and is polluting our planet with non biodegradable plastic. Thanks Apple for sending the wrong message to protect our planet and other living things.

  • No worries. The balloons were all CGI…

  • David

    The “Midnight” and “Morning Ride” actually kicked off the new iPhone 7 practically magic campaign and they were amazing! I think these ads really do speak to the very different users of iPhone. There have been some really strange ads from Apple especially with Apple Music but the regular ads are really good.

  • Herbal Denature
  • Thanks Apple for causation the incorrect message to guard our planet and different living things
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