September 28, 1997: Apple debuts its iconic “Think different” television commercial, aligning the troubled computer company with some of history’s most celebrated freethinking rebels.
The most famous tagline in Apple history, “Think different” doesn’t just articulate how Cupertino differs from its competitors. It also highlights how Apple, under the leadership of Steve Jobs, will forge a future far different from its floundering, money-losing days of the early 1990s.
Narrated by actor Richard Dreyfuss, the TV spot starts out with an instantly memorable salute to counterculture ideals. “Here’s to the crazy ones,” Dreyfuss intones. “The misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers — the round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently.”
Black-and-white images of more than a dozen 20th-century visionaries, from Albert Einstein and Buckminster Fuller to John Lennon and Martin Luther King Jr., flow past as masterful marketing copy praises the power of bold ideas.
The spot ends with the powerful (and grammatically questionable) advertising slogan, “Think different.”
Apple reunites with TBWA Chiat/Day
The successful ad, and an accompanying set of posters, did more than simply mark the return of Jobs to Apple. It was also the first Apple ad produced by TBWA Chiat/Day in more than a decade. (Cupertino ditched the ad agency following its infamous “Lemmings” Apple commercial in 1985, the same year Jobs departed the company.)
In the most cynical terms possible, the new marketing blitz served as a stalling tactic for Apple. It was an attempt to convince shareholders and customers that things would be different under Jobs.
While most fans viewed Jobs’ return with excitement, it didn’t go unnoticed that the most significant thing he had done so far was to announce one of the biggest quarterly losses in Apple history.
Unlike most things that come out of Cupertino with no forewarning, Apple actually tried out “think different” in advance. Call it a lack of confidence. Or a savvy move to make “think different” seem less marketing slogan and more grass-roots spontaneity. Whatever the case, this Apple ad campaign was, well, different.
‘Think different’ ad campaign returns Apple to its roots
As I detailed in a previous “Today in Apple history” installment, Jobs tried out the phrase in front of an audience at the 1997 MacWorld Expo. In doing so, he was “planting the seeds for the ad so that it would seem more organic when Apple debuted the [finished spots].”
The ad copy itself sprang from copywriters Rob Siltanen and Ken Segall (the latter of whom also named the iMac).
The “think different” line came from Craig Tanimoto. He also had the idea of pairing up Apple with different 20th-century thinkers. (This wasn’t entirely new territory for Apple: Its “Power is” ads from a couple years earlier featured celebrity endorsers like gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson.)
Jobs himself was persuaded to record a version of the ad narration, but didn’t allow it to air for fear that people would consider it arrogant.
‘Think different’ remains part of Apple’s DNA
Jobs originally wanted to use one of Robin Williams’ inspirational speeches from the movie Dead Poets Society for the commercial, until Siltanen and Segall wrote the “Here’s to the crazy ones” copy.
This idea clearly stuck around with someone at Apple, however. The company wound up using the Williams audio sample for one of its “Your Verse” ads for iPad in 2014.
Apple discontinued its “Think different” ad campaign upon the arrival of the iMac G4 in 2002. However, the ads’ impact continues to be felt to this day — as a kind of guiding-light mission statement, similar to the Apple Values manifesto of the 1980s.
Current Apple CEO Tim Cook, for instance, keeps a copy of one of the original “Think different” ads in his office. And last year, Apple updated the trademark with a European Patent and Trademark Office filing for the first time since 2009. (Although people should be advised not to argue with Phil Schiller that 2016-era Apple is anything like Apple circa 1997!)
What’s your favorite Apple commercial? Do you think Apple still lives up to its “Think different” mantra? Leave your comments below.