Apple’s new iPad commercial signals the death of technofetishism in high technology.
The ad is a radical departure in a number of ways from Apple’s earlier branding strategy. Gone are the white backgrounds, stark compositions, and austere images that places the device and the apps in the foreground. There is no rapid fire forced association of product with adjectives like “playful” and “friendly” that were routine in both iPad and iPhone ads:
But this ad is different. The background is black, there is a the voiceover narration, no title cards, and in almost every shot the device’s screen is out of focus cut off. But what is on the screen is interesting. The only science on display is the medical. We see home movies, a book, personal photos. A business presentation. But what is in focus in absolutely every single shot without exception is the user’s finger.
This is not an Apple commercial about the product. The commercial is about the user. You. Your experiences, your living, mediated through Apple’s products.
This is a corporate image commercial, not a product commercial. The black background and the voiceover signal something more corporate to us and less artistic or creative than earlier ads. The message is no longer “it just works.” The message is the technology is hidden, out of the way. Apple does not want you to think about the “it” at all (after you buy it). The ad signals that the “it” is so refined that it is practically invisible, and therefore, naturally, you and what you are doing move to the foreground.
Apple is doing this because it wants to change how society thinks about technology. Here’s what Steve Job’s said at the conclusion of iPad2 announcement: “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough. That it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.”
Technology married with the liberal arts.
Now consider the competition:
This is technology as it has always been sold, particularly to men. Textbook techno-fetishism. The man is archetypically masculine: dark skin, leather jacket, prominent brow, strong jawline. The colors are black, gunmetal, blue, with accents of red. Technology signaled by steam, machines, morphing, and virtual reality–a union of the history of fantastic technologies.
The man is literally enveloped by the technology. The ads intertwine shots of the device’s real interface with a holographic science fiction interface that surrounds him. The ad focuses on his eye which is augmented by a ring of blue lights and projected onto which are image from the screen. That the device’s screen is but a window onto the all-encompassing technological force field that will surround you. The ad is about technology as power, and tool for total control of a virtualized experience. The message is that this technology will make you powerful.
In both ads, the user is signaled by their media representation. In Apple’s narrative, you are represented by your mediated memories, your mediated health, your mediated work. The difference is that in Apple’s ad, there is no mass media. The experience, while mediated, is unique and individualized. In Verizon/Motorola’s you are represented by your experiences of mass media, gaming and Hollywood movies, but these are depicted to show that the product is powerful enough to handle this media.
Apple is not abandoning techno-fetishism (indeed it may be impossible to sell technology without representing it as a fetish object). But Apple is trying to change what the desire is behind the fetish, or the power the fetish object promises to deliver. It is not power and control that Apple’s products promise, but enlightenment. The iPad promises to bring to technology all the feelings that used to pass through the humanities. Reflection, joy, playfulness, and examined life.
And there is logic to this. The persuasiveness of techno-fetishism in the technology industry is waning as the cliche moves out beyond technology into everywhere else (like gum): the Xoom tablet is something of a flop, selling only 100,000 units so far.
Postscript: Before anyone says I’m overthinking this, consider that the new iPad commercial was developed by not one but seven creative directors.
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