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Apple competes with its own ad agency – and loses

Better to have stuck to computers
Courtesy Bright Orange Advertising, by permission

It's been a little over a year since Apple Computer started creating its own, in-house advertising agency to compete with Media Arts Lab, the unit that award-winning advertising agency TBWA/Chiat/Day had created specifically to serve Apple. "Whilst the Californian tech giants have worked on expanding their 1000 person in-house ad team in an effort to have greater control on their advertising strategies," says UK blog Creativepool in a July 4 post, "it is still actively collaborating with TBWA, even though since April, reports have stated that Apple is trying to distance itself from the agency."

So how are Apple's do-it-yourself advertising efforts working out? According to Ace Metrix research data compiled by Bloomberg, not so hot.

Of eight Apple television commercials tested on consumers, the three that scored most effective came from TBWA/MAL. The lowest-scoring of these scored 611 on the Ace Metrix 900-point scale, while the highest scorer of the in-house spots failed to break 600 and the group as a whole averaged 533.

Rob Siltanen, who wrote the copy for Apple's 1997 "Here's to the crazy ones" campaign, quotes an old adage by way of explanation. "There's a truism out there that applies," he says, "'The lawyer who represents himself in court has an idiot for a client.' It's very hard to have the necessary perspective to do the job right."

And perspective is what makes the difference between the TBWA spots and the in-house ones. The former were created from the consumers' perspective, the latter from the perspective of manufacturers who have fallen so in love with their collection of no doubt self-evidently ingenious product features that they're convinced the rest of the world will become instantly and completely enamored too.

TBWA's most effective commercial shows how a band can perform a cover of the Pixies' "Gigantic," an audio engineer can mix it, people can shoot home and professional videos, take stills, monitor exercise heart rates, and fire off and track backyard rockets, all with their iPhones.

Another, titled "Misunderstood," shows a teenager spending a holiday visit with his iPhone instead of his family, only to reveal that instead of shunning them he was shooting and editing a heart-warming video of them all.

The least effective of the three TBWA videos – which still outscored the best of the in-house offering – shows how the iPhone5s helps owners monitor all kinds of exercise from swimming to serious strength training to golf swings to biking to work.

The end super, "You're more powerful than you think," is what you'd expect to hear from someone who cares more about you than himself.

The same can't be said of the in-house spots. One shows people from different countries saying hello in different languages and idioms over their iPhones (Gee, who'd ever guess you could talk over an iPhone?), to make the point that – ready for this? – the iPhone 5c comes in different colors.

Another, the first of an iPad Air campaign, has Robin Williams' voice reciting a pretentiously erudite speech about poetry from the "Dead Poets Society" movie over B-roll of showing people using iPads for Serious Things, like tracking wind currents and writing screenplays in their spare time. The purpose here, as in companion spots featuring travel writer Cherie King and conductor/composer Esa-Pekka Salonen using Apple devices in their work, is to show that Apple products are for tasks more high-falutin' and less frivolous than selfies and sexting. To make sure everyone knows what a high pedestal Apple's in-house team puts the company on, the tag line is "Find Your Verse." (Funny, I didn't know it was lost.)

While Apple's advertising civil war is being fought, rival Samsung – who leaves their advertising work to agency 72andsunny – has been cleaning their clocks. One commercial, which doesn't have a single spoken word in it, shows Galaxy S5 phones working perfectly after kids drench them while having fun playing water games. That scored a 739 on the Ace Metrix scale. An earlier Galaxy spot scored 700 – a score no Apple commercial, in-house or from TBWA, has managed to even tie in at least four years.

(72andsunny, incidentally, is the agency that creative director Scott Trattner, who created the "I'm a Mac" campaign joined when he quit TBWA/MAL in 2012, reportedly in disgust over having been forced to execute the condescending and universally hated Apple "Genius" campaign.)

Google has displaced Apple as the world's most valuable corporation, and its Android operating system dominates the smartphone market.

Both of which indicate that while Apple's concentrating on do-it-yourself ads, advertising isn't their problem. Product is, and this July 5 review of the latest new iMac shows just how bad a problem it is:

Let's get this out of the way first: the low-cost iMac is externally identical to the model released in late 2013, which is itself identical to the redesigned model from late 2012. It has the same 21.5-inch, glare-resistant, 1080p IPS display panel and the same port layout (one audio jack, one SD card slot, four USB 3.0 ports, two Thunderbolt ports, and one gigabit Ethernet port). Its other networking features are also unchanged—it's got a three-stream 802.11ac implementation capable of up to 1.3Gbps connection speeds and Bluetooth 4.0. We're not even taking new pictures of the thing. There's nothing new to see. [emphasis added]

Since Apple's so big on dead poets these days, maybe they should take some guidance from this mangled Shakespeare: The fault, dear Apple, lies not in your ads, but in yourselves.

Maybe it's time to stop trying to get creative – badly – with your advertising and return to getting creative with your products.

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