By Shadoe Huard

May 14th 2011

Instantly Convinced

I often wonder why I’m so convinced Apple products are the best. Yes they work and look great but there’s other computers and phones, made by other companies, that really aren’t that bad and that I even find enjoyable.  I’d like to own a Palm Pre and I often run Windows 7 on my Macbook Pro.  Yet, if anybody asks me what company they should get their phone or computer from, the answer is invariably always the same.

I figured it out watching TV at night with my girlfriend, after watching a Motorola XOOM spot. Turns out, it isn’t that Apple has some vastly superior race of workers or some secret foresight into the future that companies like Microsoft or Google lack. They too have good engineers and developers capable of creating innovative and useful products. It’s not even the “Reality Distortion Field” people think Steve Jobs emits.

It’s much simpler. What Apple commands over their competitors is a distinct ability to create compelling commercials and brand identity. Further still, the inability of it’s competitors to do the same goes a long way towards explaining why their products consistently become pop culture items.

Commercials have a simple objective.  Promote a certain product to a certain demographic of people.  Toys for kids, soda drinks to teenagers or mutual funds to boring folk.  The idea is to convince people to give you their dollars.

As I was watching this particular XOOM commercial, it struck me that either Motorola wants to sell tablets to kids and super soldiers masquerading as underwear models or they have no idea who they’re trying to sell these things to. As an iPad competitor, I thought maybe it would try to reach the same customers.  The worse part is that the ad is just a poor commercial. A mess. To be fair, Motorola does have a history of putting incomprehensible messes on TV screens.

Apple commercials, in contrast, are like a surgeons hands: precise and calculating.  The goal of their TV advertisements is to get an iOS or Mac device into any and every household.  And for the most part, their advertisements are very good at doing just that.

Especially compared to the competition.

The Demonstration

The main type of iPhone commercial is a deceptively simple one.  You’ll recognize the plot : A closeup of a nondescript hand holding the latest iPhone against a plain white background(black, in the original series), gracefully navigating the phone’s interface through a series of specific actions demonstrating a few specific features of the device and it’s apps.  A voice intones variations of:

“Hi, this is an iPhone. It can do these neat things, look.”
“Hi, did you always wish your phone could do X/Y/Z? The iPhone does.”
“Hi, I’m the NEW iPhone. Now I can do all these other neat things.”

It’s a demonstration of the phone, wrapped up in great production values and a catchy tune. There is no nonsense. It’s a clear, simple and concise message meant to reach the broadest audience.  People like you and I tend to pay less attention to them since we already know all about their content.  But start to think about how much your mom, your sister, that jock at school or your overbearing boss at work found out about the iPhone.  How they can name specific apps without ever having held one?  How many times, when they see you take your iPhone out do they ask you if it can do that thing where you can find out the name of that song playing on the radio?

“You know, from the commercial…”

Now compare this, say, to commercials for the original HTC G1, the first Android powered phone. There’s a wider shot of the phone,  sans hand and less prominent, over a similarly white, yet not uniform, background. The phone floats and moves about in sync with some overlaid copy describing features of the phone.  There’s a catchy, more punchy tune. Similar gestalt.  Here’s the phone, here’s stuff it does.

How many of you even remember the G1?

Go watch that iPhone commercial again and you start to notice the differences.  Pay attention to the intimacy, the precise movements of the hand, belonging perhaps to the narrator. Pay attention to the dialogue, the conversational tone. How personal it all feels.  When you watch it, do you find yourself paying attention?  Did you picture your hand holding the phone, sliding and pressing your fingers across it’s glass screen?  As you ask yourself “what does this do”, the narrator, his voice inside your ears, already has the answer.

Simple. Concise. Clear.

It’s those nuances commercials like the G1’s are lacking.  It isn’t personal, it’s a just a window display.  The text, often filled with complex jargon, is distracting.  If you focus on the phone you miss the text telling you what your supposed to be looking at. If you eyes focus on the text telling you there’s a full query keyboard, your not see what it looks like.  The more stimulus your brain has to process, the less time it can allocate to each one.  Whatever message they are trying to get across gets diluted.  You saw the text and the phone at the same time sure, but you weren’t as focused.   Were you paying attention?

The demonstrative iPhone commercials let you imagine that you’re in fact the one receiving a call from John Appleseed.   Too often, ads from competitors distance you from the product. This Motorola Droid commercial is a good example to compare with.  In one of those two commercials, you subconsciously start to feel ownership of the product; you’re pretty much sold. In the other, you might be a victim.

There are variations on this demonstration approach. my favorite of which feature some sort of slow or dramatic reveal. The level of success varies.  Some don’t even tell you what the product is called, much less  show you what it does. The goal is to build anticipation; lust for the device in question.  Anticipation works best when your customers know what they’re supposed to be anticipating, like say the next Star Wars film. Take for example the early iPhone 3Gs spots.  It’s supposed to be a slow reveal to an “iPhone Killer” which, as it turns out, is simply a new iPhone.  It’s humorous but the effectiveness comes from being already familiar with the brand.  If you already thought the iPhone was great then it’s easier to feel a genuine sense of anticipation towards the next one.  In the case of Palm, which doesn’t have immense brand recognition like Apple, it’s harder to create that emotion with a non tech savvy audience.  Apple has been doing these types of commercials for their desktop and laptop lines since the introduction of the iMac. I think they work better today because their brand is stronger, but those ads still stuck to being simple, concise and clear, which probably still made them effective. Not to mention the cinematography and productions values that always brilliantly illustrate their products.

This dedication to detail and to creating a unified message is what helps Apple draw in such a large audience.  That’s how they are able to find the sweet spot that appeals to both geeks and grandmas.

It’s not so much what you do, as what you don’t do.

Microsoft has some of the funniest ads I’ve seen from any company.  They know humor. But most people have no idea what those ads are supposed to be selling.  Maybe they are supposed to be creating the idea that they are cool and hip.

Unfortunately, trying to show that your cool is often the sign that your not.

Let’s try a experiment: Watch this Window’s Phone 7 commercial and replace any instance of the phone or the name Microsoft with any other product or brand. Try bagels.  The ad still works.  That’s not a problem in and of itself, but no one remembers or cares about the phone.   When you bring up this ad at the water cooler the next day, it’s because you want to talk about how you wished you had beamed your dad with a baseball when you were younger.

What situational commercials like these lack in product integration, they make up for in entertainment.  They’re really hyper short films a designed to keep people watching. However the potential for failure is enormous. Worst case for the Microsoft spot, it’s likely the narrative is more compelling then what it’s supposed to be shilling.  Worse still is when creative agencies start getting too focused on the narrative component.  Sony Playstation commercials are probably the most notorious for this.  In the smartphone universe, look no further than Palm.  Even the narrative is getting loopy.  They might still be interesting, but they’re ineffective as advertisements.

Which brings us full circle back to that XOOM commercial.  It’s immediately recognizable as some cousin of the Droid commercials.

Dark, gloomy atmosphere: Check.

Crazy sci-fi situation alluding to power/weapons/violence: Check.

Quick shot of something cybernetic in the protagonists body: Check.

Makes sure to be unmemorable to anyone past puberty or not really into sci-fi. Check.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with making commercials aimed at people who like that sort of stuff.  There isn’t anything wrong with the execution of that spot.  A long time ago, I would have killed for some awesome device that let me pretend it could morph into some awesome battleship.   There’s certainly a gamer’s flair to it, and I’m sure it tested well with that particular audience.

However, casting a narrow net is the difference between this and this.

“Their commercials are so good. You’re instantly convinced.”

Those are the words of my girlfriend, after seeing this, the same night I watched that XOOM commercial.  She didn’t mention that one.

The best part about the “We believe” spot isn’t that it can convince you that’s what Apple believes, it’s that it makes YOU think you believe in those things.  If you already have an iPad, it’s a kind of affirmation that you’re a sort of scientific aesthete, part of the team.  Who doesn’t want to believe those are the issues that should truly matter? In this case, the commercial IS able to make the product cool and fresh. Everyone believes in magic to some extent.

Apple and other highly successful brands don’t just cater to the tastes of a particular demographic, they create emotional bonds with large swathes of people.

Again, the difference between this, and this.


You really start to feel the difference when you compare the competition’s ads against spots like “If You Asked” and “Meet Her”.  They just don’t compare.

Simple premises. Concise messages. Clear, distraction free presentations. They invoke an emotional and personal response.  And while they involve a narrative, the product has an active, rather than passive role.  The iPhone acts as a gateway in the FaceTime commercials while the iPad plays the role of some sort of portable Room of Requirement in it’s ad.

Apple focuses on promoting something anyone could find useful because they believe everyone is a potential Apple customer. They think their products can enable you to explore life to it’s limits. The other guys just want to tell you their phones have(soon) Flash installed on it.

“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” - Sun Tzu

We like to pit Apple, Google, Microsoft and Blackberry against each other and analyze the ins and outs of who’s best and who’s worst based on long lists of specs and performance benchmarks.  Which is good; companies should strive to create products that excel in both build and function.

Equally important in a company’s success is the way in which they promote those great products they create. People can quip that the iPhone is successful only because it’s cool and hip but that’s just diminishing one of Apple’s greatest strength: It’s ability to convince you to buy their stuff.  No finer example can be found then through their television ventures.

Apple assails from multiple fronts. They have both great products and great marketing.

Other companies are lucky to defend just one.  

Posted at 9:53pm and tagged with: Apple, Droid, TV, Xoom, commercials, iPad, iPhone, two column,.