New iPhone ads tell, don't show

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As reported by this Web site’s very own news-gathering team this week, three new iPhone TV ads are now in heavy rotation at a television set near you. I discussed them briefly elsewhere on the site, mostly from the perspective of seeing them for the first time at an elevation of 35,000 feet thanks to the miracle of JetBlue’s in-flight entertainment options. But I think the new commercials invite further discussion, largely because they’re such a departure from previous iPhone advertising.

But before we get into that, here’s a blow-by-blow account of the three new iPhone spots:

Doug begins his iPhone pitch with a bold statement: “One of the greatest advancements in the history of mankind, without question” is visual voicemail because it lets you pick the messages you want to listen to. A four-minute message from a guy who owes Doug money probably is a song-and-dance about how he can’t pay Doug, so Doug feels confident that he can skip that message. I think Doug could have come up with a better example that does not conjure up images of loan-sharking and usury.

Elliot relates the story of that time he and his girlfriend were about to meet her boss and the boss’s fiancée for dinner, only they couldn’t remember said fiancée’s name. The solution to this dicey social situation? Whip out the iPhone and surreptitiously use the built-in Safari browser to look up the fiancée’s name on the wedding Web site. Also an acceptable solution: Have the boss introduce the fiancée you’ve never met before, like a civilized, well-mannered adult.

Stefano starts by saying he used to need a little bag to carry everything around with him: “I had the iPod. I had a camera. And I had a regular phone, and a phone I’d use for text messages and e-mails and stuff like that. Four things.” He holds up the iPhone; “One thing,” he says. The iPhone, Stefano concludes, is “everything, all in one, for me.” I mentioned at iPhone Central that, for a variety of issues folks like my colleague Dan Moren have already detailed, the iPhone isn’t quite the iPod replacement Stefano makes it out to be. And some photo enthusiasts might dispute the notion that the phone’s built-in camera is anything more than a convenient accessory rather than a point-and-shoot rival. But I’m guessing that Stefano could probably crush me like a grape, so I’m not prepared to tell him that he’s wrong.

With the exception of a brief cutaway of Doug scrolling through his visual voicemail list of deadbeats and unfortunates, the only time you see an iPhone in any of the three ads is in the hands of the Doug, Elliot, and Stefano—there’s no close-up of the iPhone’s interface.

This is a marked contrast to the initial blast of iPhone advertising back in June, where the phone was clearly the star of the show. With the exception of a hand that performed the pinching, scrolling, flicking, and flipping required to operate the device, the iPhone’s interface was all you saw in those 30-second spots. Perhaps, Apple is assuming that at this point in the iPhone’s lifespan, everyone who’s going to plunk down $399 for the device knows what it looks like. And it’d be hard to argue otherwise.

Still, I can’t get over the gnawing suspicion that, while most potential buyers may be able to recognize an iPhone on sight, they are probably still unclear on how easy it is to operate. To spend even the briefest moments scrolling your way through an iPhone’s functions is to almost immediately realize how very different it is from competing devices. And to me, it seems a more effective use of airtime in a visual medium to show the device in action, rather than just have someone talk about it.

Take this spot, which was among the original trio of iPhone TV ads. The 30-second commercial shows how a user can quickly go from watching a movie to looking up directions to placing a phone call, all on the same device. If there’s a snappier way of showing the power and simplicity of the iPhone, I’d sure like to see it.

The counter-argument, I suppose, is that the latest iPhone ads move beyond the introduce-the-phone’s-features message into a real-stories-from-real-people phase. Think of it as the iPhone’s version of the Switch campaign from a few years back, in which disaffected Windows users professed their newfound love of the Mac platform. Of course, that campaign debuted in 2002, long after most people knew what the Mac looked like and what it could do—I’m not sure that the message about the iPhone has achieved that level of mindshare in a little more than three months.

There’s a trend of late to have Apple commercials in which the Apple product being advertised is relegated to a cameo, if it even appears at all. (Think the Get a Mac ads, where actors stand in as symbolic representations of computers. One can make the case that not every commercial needs to feature the actual product you’re supposed to buy, but when it comes to the iPhone, I don’t feel we’ve reached that stage just yet. Of course, I invite any advertising experts—or at least, enlightened amateurs—to tell me why I’m wrong.

Update: After posting this blog entry, one of my colleagues—the shy, retiring type who’d prefer not to see his name in print—notes that only one feature (Visual Voicemail) is actually name-checked. Google Maps, Yahoo, iTunes Wi-Fi, and others are all MIA. Even Elliot never actually mentions the name of the Web browser that he uses to get the fiancée’s name—just that the iPhone has Web-surfing powers.

So it makes me wonder if the ads are not actually Apple’s handiwork, but rather spearheaded by the company’s not-so-silent partner.

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