Oct 17

Stretching the truth with iPhone X


Since the dawn of time, advertisers have stretched, exaggerated and mutilated the truth to get consumers’ attention.

Hey, that’s life. It’s also why advertising is a consistent bottom-dweller in every “most respected profession” survey.

But there is hope for mankind.

Some companies have a refreshingly strong sense of advertising ethics. They believe that their products are so good, an honest portrayal is the most effective advertising tool.

Apple has always been one of those companies. That’s one reason I was so attracted to it when I was a baby copywriter.

Apple advertising was always creative and fun, but it was also intelligent and accurate. That’s what made it the industry’s “gold standard” for marketing.

That’s why it makes me nervous when I see today’s Apple playing loose with words and images to sell a product.

Case in point: the “all-screen” iPhone X.

Exactly who is edge-to-edgier?

Of course we can see with our own eyes that iPhone X is not all-screen. It has a noticeable edge around the entire display, which even the Samsung S8 does not have. And then there is “the notch” — the object of many a critic’s venom.

For the moment, let’s assume you’ve convinced yourself that you really do have an all-screen phone. Now it’s just a question of execution. Your marketing will drive that point home, right?


See Exhibit A at the top of this article. On the iPhone X web page, this is the very first panel a visitor sees.

“It’s all screen,” says the headline. Yet, astonishingly, the image focuses almost entirely on the only two parts of the phone that are not screen—the visible edge and the notch.

Kind of amazing, actually. Especially for Apple. In the past, it’s been so very good at shining a powerful light on its products’ best features. Here, that light seems so badly aimed.

The all-screen claim is fragile enough by itself. The last thing it needs is to be undone by its own marketing.

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  • So annoying to see Apple saying this during the presentation and afterwards in their marketing. Even more annoying is watching the Mac and Tech Media parrot it uncritically.

  • Can’t wait to snag one

  • This September was a big let down as far as Apple goes for me. I’ve always looked up to Apple as a company that holds to design principles and values and sticks by them come what may (as a general rule).

    But to see the company that arguably pioneered consistency in user interfaces fragmenting their OSs so much in iOS 11 and then to see them on top of that start ditching things like one handed usability on the iPhone X after spending time almost every year saying how important it was to them as a company to make sure you could reach the entire screen with your thumb… It’s just sad. It feels like the old company that I respected so much is slowly slipping away.

  • Jimmy Gunawan

    I like the iPhone X embracing function over beauty first, comparing to edge to edge whatever Samsung showing off there. Ugly or beauty is in the eyes of beholder. That notch resembles 8 mm film anyway.

  • G.

    They show a Pink iPhone on a Pink background front and center. It’s a Pink on Pink combination Ken – that’s all. Doesn’t exactly scream love or sexy to me. It’s the least daring and risk taking combination possible, kind of symbolic, the reason they missed your “all screen” correction is because they don’t really believe in the idea of it, it’s seen as marketing for the sake of marketing, a design gimmick with a catchphrase so all is allowed in that corrupted marketing view, any mismatch is game. If they believed in the idea of all screen, truly, then there would be no notch, but there is a notch. Motives matter, if they’re corrupted compromises will be made through and through and it’ll all bleed.

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  • fud

    I realize your post is about Apple marketing.

    But on a side note, is there an advantage to having the screen wrap around the edge [I need to take a closer look at S8]? Can you put a case on it? Do edge gestures work? Can the screen be replaced easily [replaced in store like Apple does]? Can it be disassembled for recycling?

    Looking forward to seeing iPhone X.

  • I have no experience with screens that wrap around the side. They are certainly “edge to edge” (at least on the sides). Interesting question though about how cases and gestures work. Maybe someone else can answer that.

  • sfjohn

    “It’s all screen” – with the pictures and bezels the focus of the picture, doesn’t bother me. One could read it’s all screen as the front, back, and sides being all screen… no phone does that yet. When I think of Apple advertising, in general they are great at communicating the look and feel. Yes there is a bezel. Yes there is a notch. But for me I can imagine it will feel like it’s all screen, especially compared to previous iPhones. But please do rant about it. I’d like as little competition at 12:01 AM on the 27th ;)


    THANKS !

  • RF9

    This kind of reminds me of the Domino’s pizza ad on their website specifically touting the extra abundant amount of toppings and encouraging you to buy a pizza just for that.
    I bought one and got 9 slices of mushroom and 11 slices of olives on a mushroom-olive pizza sparsely placed across the surface of the pizza. It wasn’t even the minimum amount of minimal toppings to come close to qualifying as having toppings. The toppings looked more like someone accidentally spilled a few on the pizza when making another one.
    I have no problem with a cheap pizza having underwhelming toppings. Heck, my expectations were that low to begin with and was otherwise not disappointed. But they specifically marketed it as a pizza with abundant toppings. Specifically. Total BS.
    I did contact Domnios corporate with a photo and they did exactly nothing except apologize. Not even a coupon. Screw those jerks. I feel insulted.
    It’s also not unlike wireless carriers saying “stream all you want” on an ‘unlimited’ wireless then putting in measures, caps, limits, and throttles trying to discourage you from streaming because what do you know, the network doesn’t actually support it.

    I would call the iPhone X an “all screen” phone despite the notch and despite the screen not going all the way to the edge. After all, if it’s not “all screen” then what is it? But I also agree that the photo should highlight the lack of screen real estates in the statement.

  • AlsoSteve

    “And then there is “the notch” — the object of many a critic’s venom.”

    Are you saying that this is your position, or are you simply using weasel words to suggest that other people have taken issue with it?

    And if it is your position, can you describe why exactly it’s bad, with arguments that make sense — and are not based purely in emotion (“Steve Jobs would not have…”) that have no bearing on me or my use of it?

    Also, you’d do yourself a favor if you didn’t use 1992 Apple (as Topolsky does) as an example of Good Design — that was the era of the Apple Adjustable Keyboard, the time when they offered Macs called II__/Centris/Performa/Quadra (and nobody knew what the hell these meant), and were also still selling two different models of Apple II (a cheaper and better product, but one with no future). For those of us who lived through it, it was neither a time of good design at Apple, nor even an example of an comprehensible product line.

    That was one of the worst years in Apple’s history. The only reason they weren’t totally tanking yet was because they had a million gallons of consumer good will from the 1980’s to burn through (which they did, over the next 5 years). From its peak in early 1991 to summer of 1993, AAPL lost 66% of its value, and kept falling.

    Half the machines Apple has ever made drew “many a critic’s venom”. What Apple product from the past 20 years has not been mocked, insulted, and ridiculed by the press? Not their laptops, desktops, workstations, servers, mice, keyboards, tablets, or phones, for sure. I’m hard-pressed to think of a single one.

    The article you linked to even mentions the iPod as an example of Apple’s good design — and it was — but in its first year, that was the most ridiculed technology product I’ve ever seen. It still has perhaps the most famous one-word tech review of all time: “Lame”. Somehow, it did OK, not just in the market, but in the mindshare of design-oriented individuals.

    Why do you think this article won’t look equally foolish, in 5 or 10 years?

  • hannahjs

    Ah yes, the good old days when ‘truth in advertising’ was a thing. The good old days when companies personally connected with their customers instead of data mining. The good old days of political compromise, trading stamps, and Queen For A Day. The days when ethics weren’t the thinness of shavings from one of Jony Ive’s aluminium blocks. The days of wine and roses.

    The days when Apple wasn’t a unique giant, able to move markets with a mere whisper, but had to work hard for their pitiful market share. The days when they didn’t care about market share, the days when mind share was all the rage. The days when Apple painted targets on IBM and Dell, the days before Apple became everyone else’s target, including its grizzled old fans and ex-employees.

    Those were the days, my friend! We thought they’d never end.

  • obarthelemy

    I think there are a couple of things going on:

    1- “All screen” is all the rage, so let’s call it that, it will make it so. It’s magic !

    2- Buyers of luxury phones want their conspicuous consumption to be conspicuous. Apple emphasizes The Notch because it’s the visual signature that will signal to all onlookers that you shelled out for the most expensive gizmo. App developers are even forbidden from trying to camouflage The Notch with a dark background: https://www.macrumors.com/2017/09/14/iphone-x-notch/

  • sarimarton

    It’s really an overthinker’s misinterpretation of Apple’s message in this advertising. It’s all screen, it is, in the sense of contrast with the previous models. Instead of having those big black areas at the top and bottom, you see the screen reaching to the top and bottom edge as much as possible. It’s a categorical world: what prevents us from being all screen? -> The top/bottom bars. Did we removed the top/bottom bars? -> Yes. Thus all screen? -> Yes. Emphasizing the notch actually strengthens this claim, especially that part of the message which says “as much as possible”

  • Matt Johnston

    I look forward to the next article taking any reference to “speed” or “fast” from any Android phone advert and poo-pooing it thoroughly.

    When was there EVER truth in marketing? (remember when Apple didn’t describe their screen dimensions as diagonals?)

  • schwabsauce

    I think it’s pretty straightforward that the phrase means that there are no buttons. It’s not trying to hide the truth about the screen’s dimensions. Apple doesn’t tout specs, just interfaces.

  • No, the phrase “No buttons” means there are no buttons. The phrase “It’s all screen” means no bezel.

  • schwabsauce

    Perhaps “it’s all screen” would mean that it was a screen that had no battery, no chip, no buttons, and no functions ;)

  • You’re reading an awful lot into this article that isn’t there.

    I didn’t offer a personal opinion about the notch. I used no “weasel words” when I said that many critics hate the notch—I was only stating the obvious. And never in this article (or in my life) did I use 1992 Apple as an example of good design. No idea where you got that from.

    Personally, I’m eagerly awaiting the iPhone X. I can’t say how I feel about the notch until I live with it for a while.

    Having created Apple ads for many years, I’m well aware of how often the critics get things wrong. I call them out for that very thing. I truly wish the law required them to publicly confess their sin when proven wrong.

    However, I do think it’s healthy for Apple fans (and shareholders) to dole out the tough love when necessary. We don’t do this to make trouble, we do it because we care.

    But this is an article about marketing, not design.

    Working with Steve Jobs shaped my views about great marketing, since he was so passionate about it. He had a clear sense of right and wrong. He was guided by good taste and common sense. He wouldn’t allow us to confuse or mislead. He had a passion for marketing that’s rare among big-company CEOs. So when I see Apple advertising straying into the world of hype, I do get a little queasy.

    I do get why “all screen” is an effective theme. In the world of phones, edge-to-edge is the Holy Grail. But there are a thousand creatively wonderful ways to express “gorgeous screen” without stretching the truth. This is what great creative people are paid to do.

    And—if “all screen” is the way it MUST go, how silly it is to illustrate that claim by highlighting the parts of the phone that contradict the claim. That’s just a violation of plain old common sense.

  • Apple advertising has a rich and storied history, and that didn’t come from distorting the truth. But yes, the ad industry in general isn’t exactly known for its honesty.

  • LutherZBlissett

    Others have noted that different markets with different rules on advertising claims use different language, and it’s not simply a matter of translation.

  • Mo

    Is your fourth paragraph copied from a comment you originally posted elsewhere?

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  • Britt Benston

    Forgive my trolling, but hopefully counterpoints are welcome here.

    It’s another smartphone. After 10+ years of smartphones, nothing to see here. Past that, it’s an ad. The thing so many people just want to block or skip. And if we’re going to analyze it on its merit as an ad, it peddles an attribute, not a benefit, and the picture plainly communicates the attribute. So the line’s presence is conspicuous for Apple (ex. purveyor of “10,000 songs in your pocket” not “a gigabyte of music.”).

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  • LOL at your Apple purism.

  • “Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.”
    — Dr Manhattan

  • Sure, counterpoints are always welcome. You’ve actually hit on one thing that every advertiser should keep in mind, but many do not. That is, ads enter our lives uninvited. They’re an intrusion, often resented. A paragraph to that effect used to be at the top of every brief handed to the creative teams at an agency where I once worked. Our mission was to create ads that could reach people who didn’t really want to hear from us.

    So I definitely agree with you that ads have a limited ability to leave an impression, and that having a simple, memorable proposition is what makes ads effective. However, I do not think that the search for this proposition is a license to distort the truth.

    “A thousand songs in your pocket” was true. “It’s all screen” is not true. And to prove it isn’t true, you need only show the “all screen” image Apple has provided.

    The ad industry has always had its share of people and agencies who regularly bend the truth. That’s why advertising has a strongly negative image with the public. Thankfully, there are some great agencies who are both ethical and creative.

    In Steve Jobs’s time, Apple was considered the gold standard. Sure, it had a few blips along the way, as every company does, but it was widely praised and copied.

    That’s why stuff like this disappoints me. I’m not saying Apple shouldn’t have great lines that “peddle an attribute.” I’m saying that the lines they come up with should be both creative and true.

    “Oh, it’s just advertising” is a bad excuse for letting a company’s high standards slip away.

  • Britt Benston

    Thanks for the reply, Ken. I agree with all you’ve said. I guess I just lament what feels like a lack of giant insight on Apple’s part at this point in time. They’re a lifestyle company, creating new ways of living within their own ecosystem. And yet they’re so tethered to the smartphone war and to traditional advertising that they’re trumpeting a hardware increment with no insight about how it will change my life. Where’s the ai that will truly break through as need fulfillment? Where’s autonomous mobility that will surprise and delight? Where is Apple using its tremendous power and resources to change the prevailing forces of evil in this nation? They have unique wherewithal. And an extra bit of screen with some advertising is trivial.

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  • Mo

    Mr. Segall never worked for Apple. He worked for an agency named TBWAChiatDay. Apple was one of their clients.

  • About 90% true.

    What I’ve discovered over the years is that many people (most?) outside the ad industry don’t get the concept of agencies and clients. If you create Apple ads, you must work for Apple, right?

    This being the case, I am always super-careful to accurately describe the nature of my work with Apple — on my site, in my books, in my keynotes and in my interviews. Still, I am often introduced as “Apple’s former creative director,” which is simply not true.

    For the record: I was an agency creative director on the Apple business for two years at BBDO/LA (during the Sculley days) and four years at Chiat/LA (when Steve Jobs returned). I was also creative director on NeXT for eight years. And, yes, I did work directly for Apple for two years as creative consultant.

  • Mo

    Sorry for any inaccuracy, sir.