9 astonishing Apple ads you probably missed

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From sledgehammer-tossing freedom fighters to misunderstood teenagers at Christmas, Apple’s TV commercials have hit us with some truly iconic imagery over the years. But when a company has been around since the 1970s, it’s no great surprise that a select few ads would slip our collective memory.

After scouring through hundreds of big-time commercials and tiny TV spots that promoted Cupertino’s products over the years, here are our picks for the Apple advertisements that time forgot. All of them are worthy of a second look — and almost all of them for the right reasons.

Alligator

With Apple taking a greener, more sustainable path in the Tim Cook era, we’re unlikely to see ads cropping up any time soon that show executives laughing at the prospect of turning alligators into handbags and shoes. Welcome to 1985!

This early ad for the Macintosh isn’t nearly as well-known as Ridley Scott’s “1984” masterpiece, but it does a great job of helping establish the kind of irreverent humor that has frequently characterized Apple ads over the years.

We Are Apple (Leading the Way)

Remember the time Apple took a crack at the Flashdance theme for a hilariously cheesy 1980s corporate ad? No? Well check it out and be reminded! While it’s pretty cringe-worthy stuff in a lot of ways, it is a reminder of a part of the Apple personality that has long since been airbrushed from existence: the geeky, friendlier computer company happy to poke fun at itself. At least, that’s what we hope is going on here.

Nightmare

This ad is pretty appropriate given Apple’s newly launched “Back to School” promotion. It’s certainly a bit strange, starting out in a Nightmare on Elm Street-style bad dream about forgetting to study for a history test, only for the central character to wake up and realize his Mac is the perfect study aid.

In the corresponding Samsung ad, we imagine the kid would have just copied from the person next to him.

Middle Seat

While 99 percent of Apple’s ads hit the mark — nailing the aspirational goal of making the typical Apple user look like an everyman, but just a bit cooler — this TV spot is a miss. Coming soon after the iconic “Think Different” ad everyone knows and loves, this iBook commercial portrayed Apple users as inconsiderate, socially inept weirdos.

The fact that it ends with Baha Men’s “Who Let The Dogs Out?” — a song that went from zero to teeth-grittingly annoying in an incredibly short space of time — just makes it worse. Hey, at least it got actor Milo Ventimiglia a bit of work before Heroes came long.

Hard Sell

It’s only recently that Apple has gotten better at selling to enterprise customers. Speak to any Apple employee involved in this area from the 1980s, and they’ll likely pour out their heart about the frustration of pitching a superior computer to businesses, only to be let down with the news that the suits will be sticking with the then-unassailable IBM. Called “Hard Sell,” this 1987 TV spot turns that around with the aid of a neat (and somewhat subtle) twist at the end. A great, understated Apple ad.

The Future

I’m a sucker for retro sci-fi, and I love Apple ads that look backward as well as forward. While Steve Jobs did this a bit while at the helm, it seems clear that Tim Cook is more willing to embrace that which has gone before. (There’s no better example than the massive 30th-anniversary celebrations for the Macintosh, compared to the minimal commemorations under Jobs for the more logical 25th-anniversary milestone.)

This 1994 campaign looked fondly back on the outdated world of robots and hover cars, before dismissing them in favor of the Macintosh. It’s a cheeky, geeky advert, and a lot softer than some of the more abrasive ads Apple was running in the ’90s.

High Technology

A lot of people remember the first Mac ads, but how many people remember the first Apple II spot? Created for High Technology, one of the first Apple resellers, this spot does a pretty good job of explaining exactly why you would want a personal computer at a time when there really weren’t all that many compelling reasons to do so.

While this is technologically a world away from the Apple ads of today, it’s interesting to see that in some ways very little has changed: This commercial focused as much on the user experience in 1977 as Apple’s ads do in 2014. Of course, where today it’s all about using iPads to measure the trajectory of baseballs, or using iPhones to track your health, 37 years ago the focus was more on balancing checkbooks and coding your own Pong game.

Voice Recognition

A lot of people act as though Apple totally failed to innovate during the decade Steve Jobs was away from the company. While it’s impossible to argue that Apple wasn’t in a lot of trouble by the time Jobs came back in 1997, Apple did come up with some pretty cool concepts during the company’s Steve-less “dark ages.”

One of them was PlainTalk, the collective name for Apple’s MacInTalk speech-synthesis and speech-recognition tools. Those features take center stage in this ad, which crows about the next iteration of the user interface at a time when a lot of PC users were still working with DOS. Strangely enough, the most un-Appleish thing about the ad is its promise that a Mac “costs less” than its rivals.

Meeting

Ads for failed products are almost guaranteed to be forgotten. The Newton was Apple’s doomed line of personal assistants, which in many ways prefigured both the iPhone and the iPad. Despite some early flaws, the Newton was actually a great product by the time Apple finally threw in the towel. This ad’s pretty great, too, with a stylish prowling camera and a wicked undercurrent of black humor.

About the author

Luke DormehlLuke Dormehl is a UK-based journalist and author, with a background working in documentary film for Channel 4 and the BBC. He is the author of The Formula: How Algorithms Solve All Our Problems, And Create More and The Apple Revolution, both published by Penguin/Random House. His tech writing has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, Techmeme, and other publications. He'd like you a lot if you followed him on Twitter.

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