Ad Report Card

Designed by Doofuses in California

Apple’s new ads make the company look lame.

Designed by Apple in California
Designed by Apple in California ad

Video still courtesy of Apple via Youtube

The Spot: It’s a series of slow-motion vignettes in which people all across the globe take delight in their Apple products. A classroom full of Asian children staring at their iPads; a couple taking a gleeful selfie with their iPhone; a woman swaying on the subway, white earbuds affixed. Heart-tugging, plinky music sets the emotional ambiance. “This is our signature,” asserts an announcer as the ad closes, “and it means everything.” The text of said signature—the phrase the brand slaps on everything it makes—now fades in: “Designed by Apple in California.”

This ad falls into a tired category that I generally despise: the “family of man montage.” Dreamy odes to the whole of humanity—and its propensity to buy our products. But that’s not all that was wrong with it. The ad just irked me from the get-go.

I wasn’t alone: The spot flopped. Surveys showed TV viewers rated it far below industry average. It fared dramatically worse than the typical high-scoring Apple ad. This attempt at stirring warm and fuzzy feelings just left folks cold.

Apple had been on a long streak of marketing excellence, starting way back in 1984 with its legendary Super Bowl epic announcing the new Macintosh. (You know, the Orwellian one. A lone Mac rebel infiltrates a lobotomized herd of PC users, shattering their dreary conformity.) Apple more recently won plaudits for a series of iPod ads that employed silhouetted dancers, catchy tunes, and some eye-popping color theory. The mid-2000s “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” series featured actors Justin Long and John Hodgman to great comedic effect, amid a run of rocketing sales.

But I spied a crack forming in the façade last year, beginning with the commercials for Siri, Apple’s voice recognition system. The ads relied on a tired trope: the celebrity endorsement. One couldn’t help but infer that Siri needed that dazzling star power, that a mere demo of its capabilities would fail to impress. The hand-picked celebs—especially Zooey Deschanel, who shows off her vintage banjo and orders tomato soup delivered—didn’t help to dispel the twee vibe that has long made Apple haters cringe.

Zooey Deschanel, Apple ad, 2012
Zooey Deschanel in an Apple ad in 2012

Video still courtesy of Apple via AdWeek

Now comes this latest spot. It’s a dire misstep. The worst I’ve seen from Apple’s ad team. Part of the problem is that it burnishes Apple’s brand in general, instead of hawking a specific product. (Which may reflect the fact that Apple lacks new products to hawk. Hey, we get impatient. IPad Mini came out nine months ago!) There’s always a temptation to slip into gauzy boasts when an ad touts your company’s essence instead of its output—faith, not works.

And what does Apple want to tell us about its essence? The ad’s in part an effort to draw a contrast with competitor Samsung, which has been eating up market share and taking potshots at Apple. Tech writers have noted the ad’s emphasis on Apple’s geography (North California, not South Korea) and its carefully curated product line (“We spend a lot of time on a few great things”—a sly dig at Samsung’s slew of dishwashers and vacuums).

There’s an underlying arrogance, though, to that voice-over copy. “This is it. This is what matters,” the ad begins. Lofty claims for a suite of consumer gadgets. The monologue goes on to crow that, before releasing a product, Apple’s designers ask, “Does it deserve to exist?” Implication: Your Galaxy S4 is a shameful waste of protons. It should immediately be vaporized and disappeared from Earth.

If you already adore your collection of Apple stuff—disclosure: I actually do adore my collection of Apple stuff—you might be charmed by this ad. It panders to your self-conception. The notion that you’ve chosen craftsmanship over frugality, that your gewgaws are lovingly birthed by wise Cupertino artisans. (Even if they’re assembled by suicidal Shenzhen peasants.)

But if you’re not yet sold on the Apple vibe, this ad won’t help. The company is taking itself waaaay too seriously. Steve Jobs could somehow get away with terming his creations “magical.” But in the Tim Cook era, with no revolutionary product launches to speak of, and none on the immediate horizon, the last thing Apple needs is a snotty, laurels-resting manifesto.

Apple marketing has, in the past, positioned the brand as the bringer of all things new. The latest jam. The next shizz. The 1984 Super Bowl spot heralded an upcoming product. The iPod dancers were bopping to pop tunes, with optimistic energy. Imagine if instead those dancers had been grooving in slow motion to the plinking strains of a maudlin instrumental, as an announcer intoned some portentous claptrap like, “This changes everything about what it means to dance with headphones on.”

This new ad looks backward. It tells, it doesn’t show. It implores you to kneel before Apple’s past accomplishments. In short—contrary to another old Apple marketing claim—it just doesn’t work.