What happened to Apple’s marketing magic?

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When will we see another "1984?"
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

Chances are you can vaguely remember the last Apple ad you saw, but do you remember it in the same way you remember the company’s “1984” commercial for the original Macintosh, or its wonderful “Think Different” campaign? It’s been a while since we saw anything quite as iconic.

Friday-Night-Fights-bug-2Apple still creates great commercials we can’t help but talk about, but many fans would say those ads aren’t as good as they once were. Has Apple lost its marketing magic, or is it just too difficult to create truly iconic ads in the digital age?

Join us in this week’s Friday Night Fight between Cult of Android and Cult of Mac as we battle it out over these questions and more!

cartoonluke_360.pngLuke Dormehl (Writer, Cult of Mac): Let me start out by saying that I’m a huge fan of good ads. I used to work as a copywriter for an ad agency, and it was Apple’s ads which played a big part in first making me aware of just what an inventive, fun and, yes, strangely emotive medium advertising can be. Commercials like the classic 1984 Macintosh Super Bowl spot, or the 1997 Think Different campaign are iconic for sure — but Apple’s also done plenty of other wonderful work over the years in this area.

It’s hard not to argue that their standards haven’t slipped a bit recently, however.

Yes, the “Shot on iPhone” campaign was a lot of fun, and 2013’s “Misunderstood” iPhone 5s ad was as affecting as the best holiday commercials, but there have been more hits than misses. There’s a general lack of imagination on display, along with an increasing reliance on celebrities that just feels… well, Samsung-esque. Which is why it’s not too much of a surprise to me that you’re running to defend them. Yes, Apple’s selling a lot of products right now, but it’s rare that you see it produce an ad which does those products justice.

I’m not the only one who thinks this way, either. Phil Schiller has ripped Apple’s own ads in private emails and Apple’s experimented with using its own in-house department to produce commercials, so clearly it’s aware that it’s lost a bit of the cool factor in this area.

Look, I’m not saying it’s easy. Take a gander at this week’s HTC One A9 commercial and you can see that everyone and their mother is stealing Apple’s ideas. It’s also not the cocky young upstart it was in 1984, or the comeback kid it was in 1997. But Apple is producing some of the best work of its career in terms of tech. Shouldn’t we be asking the same in terms of its advertising?

Perhaps you disagree…

Killian-FNFKillian Bell (Writer, Cult of Android): Apple has produced some incredible ads, and it is the only technology company I can think of that has done that. I’m probably missing some good ones from others, but it’s Apple’s that really stick in your mind. But not even Apple can rollout iconic ads every year. They can’t all be smash hits that everyone remembers a decade later.

That doesn’t mean Apple’s recent ads are bad, though. Yes, some of them feature celebrities, but I wouldn’t say they’re cheesy like Samsung’s are. They don’t try ​too hard to be funny; they’re just cool; if you build a pink, or “rose gold” iPhone that you know is going to be a hit with teen girls, who better to market it than Selena Gomez?

But Apple doesn’t push the celebrities in our faces; it’s more subtle. And that new iPhone ad with Bill Hader is hilarious!

The recent “If it’s not an iPhone” campaign was good, I thought, and it did exactly what it was designed to do: highlight the iPhone’s best features in fun and interesting ways. What about the recent iPad ads, like “Make Music with iPad”? They’re awesome, and no tech company is making ads like that. They’re interesting to ​everyone — not just tech geeks.

cartoonluke_360.pngLuke: No company is going to hit it out of the ballpark every time, but it’s the swinging for the fences that counts. It just feels like Apple is content to play it safe lately. And that’s a shame.

I personally wasn’t a big fan of the Bill Hader ad. It kind of backfired actually — being funny, but ultimately showing that Siri’s ability to read out your email was just going to wind up having your junk messages read aloud. I guess that’s amusing… kind of.

It’s easy to look at advertising and see it as a tacked-on extra, but Apple’s always been a brand-driven company. I don’t mean by that that it’s all style and no substance, but rather that it has a message — it’s about improving people’s life through technology, but in a way that puts people ahead of tech. It’s an empowering message, but I don’t get that from looking at some of Apple’s recent ads. I get Mary J. Blige dancing around to Apple Music instead.

It’s all a bit conventional. And I don’t think that sums Apple up as a brand.

Killian-FNFKillian: But those ads still point out what’s new about iPhone 6s. Everyone knows what the iPhone can already do; consumers don’t need another ad that tells them how it’s going to change their lives. They need to know what’s new about the latest model. But those “with iPad” ads do​ demonstrate how Apple’s tablet can improve your life in little ways.

I think the problem Apple faces today is that it is marketing products everyone is familiar with, and there’s only so many times it can tell us how how life-changing those products are. If you look at the Apple Watch ads, they do attempt to showcase why you should want a smartwatch; they’re not just relying on familiar faces. But in this case, Apple is working with a new product category that the average consumer isn’t familiar with.

I think the other problem could be the lack of Steve Jobs’ pursuit of perfection. Jobs used to tear into ad agencies when they didn’t produce spectacular results, but there’s no one at Apple to do that anymore. Can you imagine Tim Cook tearing someone’s head off because he doesn’t like the soundtrack to the latest iPhone ad?

I don’t think Apple’s ads are conventional. Yes, it uses celebrities, but in different ways. This is nothing new; Apple has used celebrities in good ads in the past, like the iPod ads with U2. And Beats, which is now an Apple business, has built an incredibly popular brand almost entirely out of celebrity endorsement.

cartoonluke_360.pngLuke: Interesting that you’d bring up the Apple Watch. We’ve previously discussed the question of whether or not the device has found its killer app yet, but you know that a new product category like that is calling out for the equivalent of one of Apple’s classic ad campaigns to tell you why this is a “must have” device. I actually can imagine Apple’s senior staff tearing into someone for a sub-par ad campaign, which is exactly what we saw with the Phil Schiller emails. I’d just like to see Apple put some focus back into that area.

Jobs was, at heart, a marketing guy — and maybe Apple’s missing that kind of visionary right now. Cook is great at operations and running the company, Ive is brilliant at product design, but where’s the marketing heart and soul. That’s what’s missing in Apple’s current ads. I can’t be the only one who’s noticed this.

So let’s turn it over to our readers. Am I way off-base here? Is Killian right that things are good enough? Let’s continue the debate below.

Friday Night Fights is a series of weekly death matches between two no-mercy brawlers who will fight to the death — or at least agree to disagree — about which is better: Apple or Google, iOS or Android?