Apple had plenty of ups and downs before emerging as one of the leading names in consumer technology. It's hard to imagine modern smartphones or computers without the influence of Apple, and a large part of the company's continued success relies on brand loyalty driven by keen marketing.
After some early successes, the company hit a few snags and underwent restructuring. As a result, Steve Jobs left Apple in 1985 and wouldn't return until late 1996 – just in time for Apple's big push into the mainstream. While Apple's position in the consumer tech market was sometimes strong and sometimes poor, the company's advertisements were always spectacular. In a world where people have a seemingly infinite number of choices for phones, music players, computers, wearables, and other gadgets, the one you remember is the one that succeeds.
If nothing else, Apple has always been good at being memorable and building a culture around the brand that feels fresh and exciting. Apple built a feeling around its products which might be more valuable than any of its actual IP, and it helped establish that identity with its iconic commercials. These are some of the best.
1984 Macintosh ad
The Macintosh computer hit store shelves in January 1984 and one of Apple's most ambitious advertisements leans into the timing with a reimagining of George Orwell's science fiction classic, "Nineteen Eighty-Four." The commercial, directed by none other than Ridley Scott, shows a mass of people moving through an industrial space while a Big Brother-like character speechifies on a massive screen.
Meanwhile, an athlete runs through the space carrying a large hammer, her white tank top emblazoned with a stylized image of a Macintosh computer. Once within throwing distance, she hurls the hammer through the screen, shattering the image of the oversized speaker. The screen fades to black and a voice cuts through, saying, "On January 24, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like 1984."
The commercial aired on television only twice in the United States, but one of those times was during Super Bowl XVIII on January 22, 1984. That was enough to generate substantial interest in the Macintosh and earn the commercial a number of awards over the years, including TV Guide's Greatest Commercials of All Time.
Pencil Test for Apple II
"Pencil Test" is not your conventional advertisement. It's more like a short film intended to show off the capabilities of Apple's Macintosh II computer. It begins with an image of an Apple Macintosh II on a home computer desk, all animated in the fledgling computer graphics of the time. The camera focuses on a small 2D pencil icon on the computer screen. The icon looks out at the world around it through the screen, sees a 3D pencil on the desk, and leaps out of the computer to check it out.
Hearing someone coming, the pencil icon pushes the 3D pencil out of the way and takes its place on the desk. However, when the icon tries to go home, it discovers the computer has been turned off. Determined to get back inside the computer, the pencil icon builds a Rube Goldberg machine of staplers to slingshot it into the power switch and open the portal home.
"Pencil Test" is dated by contemporary standards but pretty impressive considering it was made in 1988 with nothing but a Macintosh II. It also didn't hurt that Apple had the help of some computer animation pioneers. The credits list John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton, influential figures in 3D animation who would go on to direct Pixar classics such as "Toy Story," "Finding Nemo," and "WALL-E."
You like your Macintosh better than me, don't you Dave?
In the final years leading up to the new millennium, a subset of technologically minded folks became increasingly concerned that computers might malfunction when the calendar ticked over to the year 2000. The Y2K problem, as it became known, hinged on the fact that some software only allowed for two digits in the year. Once 1999 ended, those digits would turn over to zero and no one was totally sure what might happen. The popular sentiment was either that nothing would happen or that airplanes would fall out of the sky and modern civilization would cease to be.
Of course, the lights didn't flicker at midnight and the world didn't end, but Apple didn't miss an opportunity to toy with the idea in the lead-up. The company's 1999 Super Bowl ad featured HAL 9000, the infamous artificial intelligence from Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey," addressing Dave — the movie's protagonist — and, by extension, the audience.
HAL reminisces about the year 2000 in the rearview mirror from his perspective, and he calls it the year computers began to misbehave. It wasn't their fault, of course. It was a bug in their programming. However, in this fictional alternate future, the machines caused a global economic disruption, leading HAL to wonder if Dave prefers his Macintosh over him.
I'm a Mac, I'm a PC
The "Get a Mac" advertising campaign is one of Apple's most memorable and successful. In the United States, it featured comedian John Hodgman and an early career Justin Long standing against a white background. The duo portrayed the embodied personages of a PC — implied to be a Windows home computer — and a Mac, respectively.
The campaign launched in 2006 and ran through 2009 with a series of similar ads, all comparing the capabilities of Mac computers against those of other personal computers. In each advertisement, Hodgeman wears an intentionally boring business suit while Long sports casual wear and a youthful attitude. The message, both spoken and subliminal, is that PCs are old and outdated while Macs are new, exciting, and most importantly, cool. PCs were painted as your dad's computer while Macs were the machine for a new generation.
Alternate versions of the ads ran all over the world, with Hodgeman and Long subbed out for comic duos more recognizable in their respective regions. In the UK, for instance, the comedians David Mitchell and Robert Webb heralded the campaign. The campaign was a resounding success with a corresponding spike in Mac sales and market share.
Say Hello to the iPhone
In 2007, Apple was primed to make a big jump into wireless communication. Up to that point, the company had focused its efforts largely on home computers and later on the iPod. The iPhone was built on the foundation of the iPod but incorporated a bunch of additional features more common to home computers — as well as the ability to make phone calls, of course.
While phone calls are little more than a peripheral function of smartphones today, Apple seemingly wanted to focus on that function for the launch of the first iPhone. The "Hello" advertisement accomplished this by stacking clips from popular movies and television in which characters utter the word hello into a telephone. Over the course of 30 seconds, viewers see a rapid-fire montage of Lucille Ball, Betty Rubble, John Cusack, Dustin Hoffman, Will Ferrell, Samuel L. Jackson, Mr. Incredible, and many, many more saying (and sometimes screaming) the word hello into a phone.
In addition to the repeated use of a familiar greeting, putting the viewer at ease, the commercial carefully showed the evolution of telephone technologies leading up to the reveal of the iPhone at the end. The ultimate message was that the iPhone was the natural next step in human communication.
There's an app for that
With the advent of smartphones came the rise of the application, commonly known as apps. At first, apps were built in and available only from your phone's manufacturer. Later on, independent groups and individuals cooked up their own mobile software, and the App Store was born. When Apple launched the iPhone 3G with the App Store preinstalled, they wanted a campaign to let people know about the seemingly infinite buffet of functions available through apps.
The resulting ad campaign was so effective that its tagline became a part of the popular parlance. It opened on an iPhone against a white background. A human hand comes from offscreen to manipulate the phone while a narrator asks a series of questions. Do you want to check snow conditions up the mountain, find out the caloric value of your lunch, or remember where you parked your car? Well, the narrator assures you, "There's an app for that."
The phrase became so popular and so repeated that Apple filed a trademark to prevent any competitors from using it, but not before "Sesame Street" got in on the action with a spoof of their own. If you live on the Street, you have an iPogo, and you want to comb your cat or rhyme a word with gnat — there's an app for that.
While Apple isn't above the standard 30-second TV spot, the company has also been known to get experimental with its advertisements. To that end, the Bounce ad is more of a short film that highlights the feeling of wireless audio delivered by AirPods.
It starts with a man alone in his apartment. He seems a little down in the dumps as he gets dressed, plasters a fake smile on his face, and pops in a pair of AirPods. Music cuts the silence, "I Learnt Some Jazz Today" by Tessellated as the man exits to the street. A little kid bouncing on a discarded mattress foreshadows the oncoming theme. Our hero jumps on the mattress too and finds that it flings him high into the air. The same is true of manhole covers, slabs of sidewalk, and bus stops.
The man falls into a construction pit before defying gravity to literally bounce off the walls and ascend to the tops of buildings. The short film took home just about every advertising award it was eligible for by communicating the feeling, if not the reality, of having your own personal wireless soundscape.
Siri tells John Malkovich a joke
These days, Siri is so completely incorporated into all Apple products that many users talk to Siri more than they talk to any of their human contacts. It feels as though Siri has always been here with us, but her arrival occurred only in 2011 with the release of the iPhone 4S.
Apple leaned on the immeasurable talents of John Malkovich to introduce the world to its new digital assistant. The commercial begins in what is presumably Malkovich's home as he lounges comfortably in an elegant office with no company save for his iPhone 4S equipped with Siri. Malkovich asks Siri a number of questions — a weather report, his calendar for the evening, where he can find linguica nearby — which she answers in quick succession. Then he asks Siri a joke and has a moderately human back and forth, hinting at the more robust versions of Siri to come.
It isn't Malkovich's most memorable performance — he laughs at Siri's joke before she even finishes the setup — but it adequately demonstrated Siri's nascent capabilities and made clear that the iPhone was more than just a phone.
There's no step three
Today, the internet is a ubiquitous part of everyday life, but it wasn't always so. In the early days of dial-up, getting online could be a laborious process involving extra hardware and a little know-how. When Apple released the iMac with its crayon-colored exterior and stylish design, it was clear from the outset this was a machine of another kind. Its hardware was likewise off the beaten path in a way which, looking back, feels almost suspiciously forward-thinking.
Apple ditched the standard ports and floppy disk drive typical of the time in favor of a CD-ROM drive and USB ports. With the clarity of time, that seems like an obviously correct choice, but that wasn't as apparent at the time. Apple also incorporated a built-in modem — most home computers of the time had standalone modems purchased and set up separately — which made getting online easier than ever.
The company borrowed the unique charms of Jeff Goldblum to explain the simplicity of getting online with an iMac in three easy steps. Step one is to plug in your computer, step two is to plug in the phone line. There is, of course, no step three. That's the bit, and Goldblum sells it the way only he can.
The iPod's dancing silhouettes
The arrival of the iPod was a definitive cultural moment that changed the trajectory of how people engage with media on the go. The first iPod was released in 2001 but it really hit the mainstream when the silhouette ad campaign launched in 2003. The campaign featured a number of commercials with the same general design: black, featureless silhouettes dancing to music, wearing a white iPod and headphones against a colorful background.
Perhaps the most memorable is the 2003 ad featuring "Are You Gonna Be My Girl" by Jet. The song had been released a year earlier but received a huge boost in popularity thanks to the iPod ad. As the campaign evolved, Apple tried out new songs and eventually incorporated the actual bands onscreen. In 2004, for instance, U2 debuted the song "Vertigo" from the album "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb" in an iPod commercial. Similar ads were crafted with songs and performances by Bob Dylan and Coldplay, wherein the performers are slightly visible, as opposed to wholly black and featureless.
With the exception of some notable musical artists, the message behind the campaign was clear and successful. When you're using an iPod, you're in a world of your own musical making — while everything else fades away.