Apple’s greatest (and worst) TV commercials

No one asked me what the best Mac ever was (the PowerBook G4), or the greatest Mac game (I’ve always been torn between Civilization II and Championship Manager) or what Apple needs to do right now. (Give more exclusives to that dashing fellow from Macworld. No, not Dalrymple. I said dashing.) And I’ll tell you, it hurts. It hurts very deeply.

But there is something I can contribute to our 25th anniversary hoopla—a rundown of the best and worst Apple commercials of the Mac era. I’m uniquely qualified for this task—I watch quite a bit of television. (After all, something has to fill the empty hours when I’m not playing Civilization II or Championship Manager.)

The problem, of course, when drawing up a list of the best Apple TV spots of all time is that your toughest decision has already been made for you. You have to put Apple’s “1984” ad, which introduced the Mac 25 years ago, in the top slot. If you don’t, people either assume you don’t know what you’re talking about or you’re just trying to make some waves. And if you do put “1984” at the head of the list, people say, “Well, duh”—usually not that politely—and conclude that you’re some sort of play-it-safe dullard. It’s a lose-lose proposition.

So let’s just stipulate that “1984” belongs in the No. 1 spot, OK? It’s a unique, iconic ad that still resonates today. It set the tone for the next quarter-century of Apple and the Mac. Because of “1984,” the Mac was established as an upstart, an alternative, a way of standing out from the crowd. And because of that ad, people still think of Apple, which tallied $10 billion in sales in its last quarter and is sitting on $28 billion in cash, as sticking it to The Man when, in truth, Apple is who The Man calls when he needs a fourth for bridge.

So let’s just gaze in wide wonder at the ad that started it all:

Since we’re just a few days away from the Super Bowl, the Web is chock full of articles about the “1984” ad, each recounting the details of how it was created by Chiat-Day and directed by Ridley Scott of Blade Runner fame. But here’s a little fun fact overlooked in many of those articles (though not at Folklore.org): the “1984” ad did not air for the first time during Super Bowl XVIII. Because Chiat-Day wanted to enter it into an ad competition, it bought ad time on a Twin Falls, Idaho TV station and broadcast the commercial in the wee small hours of the morning about a month before “1984” made its “public debut.” Oh, to be an Idaho-based insomniac in December 1983…

Now, as to the rest of the Best Apple ads list, that’s where things get a little bit more interesting. Let’s count ‘em down.

2. The Dancing Silhouettes

In its own way, these ads—which feature silhouetted dancers moving and a-grooving to an assortment of pop hits while clutching their iPods—have approached the iconic status of the “1984” ads. Hey, when you’ve inspired a wide variety of parody ads, you know your place in the pop culture firmament is secure.

By the way, I much prefer the ads where the dancers appear entirely in silhouette form. The new ads where the likes of U2, Eminem, and Coldplay show up only partially silhouetted. Come on, fellas—scared that giving up even 30 seconds of face time will confuse and frighten the teeney-boppers?

3. Think Different

A colleague who I will not name, lest his inbox explode under the weight of the inevitable hate mail, tried to argue that this 1998 TV ad—featuring a montage of iconoclasts, mavericks, and pioneers—should actually be on the Worst Ad list. His reasoning? Because if you boil the ad down to its essential message, Apple seems to be saying, without a hint of self-consciousness, “Buy a Mac… because Ghandi would have.” And maybe this colleague of mine has a point.

But I think argument overlooks the context of the times. A decade ago, Microsoft was perilously close to big-footing just about everyone in the PC market. The question, at the time, wasn’t “Should I get a Mac?” but rather “Why should I bother?” Did the “Think Different” ad perhaps presume a little too much? Maybe. But at the time, a wildly aspirational ad was what Apple needed to reset the terms of the Mac-or-no-Mac debate, and that spot delivered.

4. Blown Away

When you’re introducing a new system like the Power Mac G5, nothing helps drive home about its performance like a short, simple visual. It’s a shame that 3GHz G5 never materialized.

5. Switcher: Janie Porche

I’m a sucker for ads in which someone explains in simple English why I would want to spend my hard-earned dough on a good or service. And this ad featuring Ms. Porche—the best of Apple’s entire “Switcher” campaign if you ask me—does exactly that. PCs make you jump through hoops. The Mac does not. Ergo, the Mac will help you save Christmas.

Anyone who mentions the “Switchers” campaign, by the way, is legally obligated to mention the Ellen Feiss ad. Consider that obligation fulfilled, though, honestly, the appeal of that particular ad remains as elusive as ever to me.

6. Pentium II Snail

Another visually persuasive ad—this one touting the merits of the G3 over the Pentium II—that makes its point clear, without a lot of carnival barking. Although I don’t envy the Apple executive who had to explain away this one the first time Apple sat down with Intel to discuss maybe ditching the PowerPC.

7. iTunes: Jacob

Put Eminem in an ad? Meh. But put a kid in an ad giving “Lose Yourself” his own distinctive spin? I’m going to buy what you’re selling, friend. And you have to admire any ad that causes Eminem to sic his lawyers on somebody.

8. Step Three

Chalk up another strong effort from the Give-Me-One-Simple-Reason-to-Buy-Your-Product school of advertising. This might have ranked higher on my list, save for my all-encompassing and not entirely rational disdain for the sound of Jeff Goldblum’s voice.

9. Color iMacs

This could be any one of a number of ads featuring the multicolor G3-powered iMacs. The recipe is the same: Play some sort of thematically-relevant pop song, while swopping camera angles show you every square inch of the iMac. It worked for the original set of color models as well as Ruby, Indigo, and especially Snow. But not Sage—in the part of the song selected by Apple, Kermit is singing about how he does not particularly enjoy being green. That’s a mixed message. I will argue this to my dying day.

10. “Hello”

Perhaps not the most memorable ad ever to tout an Apple product, but if you’re a movie buff, it’s fun to watch this iPhone introduction spot and count how many film clips you can recognize.

Of course, not every ad Apple’s ever aired passes muster. I can’t really pretend to be a fan of the current Get a Mac series, for starters. True, the ads are funny enough, and most people seem to like them, but there’s a fundamental problem with the campaign… for me, at any rate. See, I find myself… well, not identifying exactly, but sympathizing with the anthropomorphized PC. He, like I, probably could stand to lose a few pounds. He, like I, struggles with the haunting suspicion that, more often than not, he is out of his depth. And he, like I, doubtlessly rocks himself to sleep at night by dreaming of pummeling Justin Long. I have more in common with that PC than I care to admit.

But if you want to talk Apple’s worst ads, there are only two legitimate contenders to the dented crown. First, there’s the ad Apple unveiled to announce its transition to Intel-based chips. Because when you’re announcing a bold new move that figures to revitalize the performance of your products, what better setting than a sterile fabrication facility populated by tentative-looking people in clean suits? Oh, and can you get Keifer “Who are you working for?” to narrate to add that special post-apocalyptical touch? You can? Super.

But the ad that still gets my dander up, even after all these years, is Middle Seat, in which a thoughtless young man uses his Mac portable to terrorize, impose upon, and otherwise annoying his fellow passengers on a red-eye flight. Everything about the commercial irritates me—from the young man’s cloddishness to the regrettable use of the Baha Men’s “Who Let the Dogs Out?” (Presumably, the “Macarena” guys were demanding too high of a royalty.) The ad’s only redeeming quality? There’s a possibility that, shortly after the commercial ends, the air marshals on board the plane subdued the young man swiftly and mercilessly.

I am indebted to AppleTVAds.com for jogging my memory about many of these commercials.

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