In the first episode of Mad Men this season, Christina Hendricks’ character is sent to meet with the head of marketing from Butler Footwear. “Advertising’s just a small piece of the marketing mixture and it might be more effective if it’s better integrated into our business,” he tells Joan.
“So are you thinking about bringing one of our account executives into our office?” she replies.
“Actually, I’d like to bring all our advertising in house.”
While Joan is successful in talking him out of it, at least for a while, in the real world, Apple’s longtime advertising agency TBWAChiatDay has apparently been less so of late. Bloomberg reports that Apple has hired personnel away from the Media Arts Lab at ChiatDay, a unit there that only does work for Apple. And several of the recent television spots the company has run, including the recent “What will your verse be?” campaign, have been produced in house.
The machinations at Apple pre-date the most recent season of Mad Men, with the company confirming it was responsible for last October’s “Pencil” spot, highlighting the thinness of the then-new iPad Air. Still, the ties between art and life in this story are almost too bizarre to be real. Apple also acknowledged to Bloomberg through spokesperson Amy Bessette, that it’s behind the “Your Verse” campaign, in which Robin Williams does voiceover work.
Next to Apple’s iconic 1984 ad, probably the most important of its televised spots ever was “The Crazy Ones“, a 1997 ad at the centerpiece of its “Think Different” campaign, which helped bring the company back from oblivion. This past fall, The Crazy Ones would become the title of a CBS sitcom, about an ad agency, starring Robin Williams.
Whether Apple was inspired by Williams presence in a show named for an ad it ran 17 years ago isn’t clear, but there are strong parallels between the two. The Crazy Ones (the show), received a mixed critical reception and is gone. “Your Verse” contains some fantastic imagery and I said some nice things about it, but it begins to get tired as a meme. “Your Verse” has since been expanded with two new spots: one features travel and the other is music centered. They are gorgeous and they hit the right notes, forgive the pun, about experiences over technology that Apple has been trying to play off for some time.
The question is whether the references to “verse” are buying Apple anything interesting. The company markets an accessible luxury brand that at least some people find off-putting because it’s the one “pretentious” people use. Is the ongoing ask for “verses” doing anything more than reinforcing that notion? Is it bringing Apple any of the hipness Apple’s VP Phil Schiller was concerned about last year when he forwarded a Wall Street Journal article to ChiatDay’s president James Vincent titled “Has Apple Lost Its Cool to Samsung?”
It doesn’t feel that way. Instead, it seems like the actions of a bunch of folks who have lost touch with the cultural zeitgeist and aren’t precisely sure how to get it back. Apple is famous for its desire to control things from the smallest design elements of its products to its supply chain, so why not control advertising too? But placed in context of another recent report, you might start to wonder if bringing advertising in house isn’t more about Apple’s legendary reputation for arrogance, too.
Buzzfeed has a somewhat explosive story that claims the Beats deal was motivated in part by Apple’s failure to even understand the music streaming business at the executive level. The report claims Apple felt iTunes Radio would streamroll Pandora, because the internet radio pioneer was bad at making money. Worse still, Buzzfeed quotes a source saying that as recently as 2013, some Apple execs “didn’t understand how Spotify worked, which is why they thought iTunes Radio would be a Spotify killer.” Basically, the source claims, they were unaware that Spotify was more than just radio and allowed on-demand streaming from a giant library.
Apple didn’t comment on the Buzzfeed report and had little to say to Bloomberg, but it does keep producing new television advertising. The latest spot, titled “Strength” highlights the iPhone 5s and various fitness-monitoring apps and devices. The visuals are fine, sometimes even a bit cool. But the background music is a song titled “ Chicken Fat” that not only comes from the early 1960s, its every bit as dated as Season 1′s Don Draper would be if he walked into your living room. Part of President Kennedy’s effort to get young people to exercise, the song is from another time, for another generation’s children, and unlikely to motivate someone to grab their iPhone and start a new exercise program.
It’s unclear who actually put the spot together — Apple’s in-house team with the former Chiat personnel or the agency itself — but either way, senior management in Cupertino decided it was a good idea to put it on the air. They made a similar call with the recent “Gigantic“, which is about 10 million times hipper, but nevertheless uses a song by the Pixies, from the ’80s. (We could go off on a tangent that the song itself is totally inappropriate, but there’s no way to do a better job of that than Slate did.)
Apple wasn’t always choosing songs from three or five decades ago. When it used Feist’s “1234″ to advertise the iPod Nano in 2007, the song itself was from, lo, 2007! When it used “Bruises” by Chairlift a year later for the updated Nano, that song was also current. It’s certainly not the case that every single spot needs to use music from indie radio that’s on right now, but the fact that Apple’s popularity with young people was rising along with marketing that was current seems to be a lesson that’s entirely lost in the oddly retro campaigns of late. Evoking memories of Dead Poets Society and the Pixies is great 1980s nostalgia. It’s a rather oblique way to capture the next wave of youth customers who ostensibly Apple is concerned with Samsung stealing away via “The next big thing is here,” though.
This is art, not science. Microsoft has spent years using current music as if they watched those same Nano commercials and thought, “Yes! Mainstream-ish music!” As a result, they used a song about commitment phobia (Alex Clare’s “Too Close”) to try to convince people to use Internet Explorer. Now, they are using a song about coming out (Sara Bareilles “Brave”) to sell tablet computers.
There’s are numerous reasons most companies don’t do their creative work in house: You start to see the world through a very narrow lens if all you do is build ads for one company, for openers. Beyond that, though, you lose the back and forth an agency — or even a bake off between several of them — can provide. Apple may not be as out of touch as “Chicken Fat” suggests they are, but it’s a troublesome sign that every commercial could add a #TBT (that’s “throwback Thursday” for the uninitiated). Bringing on the Beats folks is no panacea either. While Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine are doubtless more up on the latest trends than Schiller or Tim Cook, Iovine is hardly free of his own brand of ’80s nostalgia.
Apple ends up with products that are far more appealing to young people than all this would indicate and Beats is even more popular among teens than Apple. That’s the good news. And it’s not as if any of this advertising is a disaster. Indeed, Apple is scoring above average on Ace Metrix’s scores of advertising impact and is rumored to beefing up digital efforts — where it’s been notoriously weak. It just might want to consider seriously whether a company that’s made it name building the devices people didn’t yet know they wanted should be reminding them of times they’d already long since forgotten. And maybe it should admit it can use some help to do that. Just like Butler Footwear.