Sharing the spotlight: Apple’s long love affair with Hollywood

iPhone Siri Sam Jackson

Much to-do is being made of new television advertisements that feature actors Zooey Deschanel and Samuel L. Jackson promoting Siri on Apple’s iPhone 4S. The ads are… well, predictable, playing off Deschanel’s image as a goofy ingenue and Jackson as a personification of cool urbane masculinity (or perhaps suburbane, in this case). Part of the surprise factor in these ads is the obvious tie-ins. After all, Jackson is on the verge of a high-profile appearance in the superhero film The Avengers (opens May 4), and Deschanel’s sitcom New Girl is desperate for a ratings boost after Fox took it off the air for a month to, um, maybe run a non-stop Cops marathon? Give America’s NASCAR Wanted Dance Factor a shot?  Who knows?

Apple is currently the megawatt star of American business — it dominates the mobile device industry with the iPhone and iPad, and is currently one of the most valuable companies in the world — at least on paper. Does Apple need Tinseltown celebrities to help sell its products? And do the appearances of Jackson and Deschanel in particular cheapen the Apple brand?

Maybe. However, Apple has a long — and sometimes embarrassing — history of celebrity appearances and ad spots. But Apple’s recent good fortune means many of its current customers don’t remember the clunkers.

Who’s in that ad?

Apple’s recent television product advertisements have tended to be both very personal and highly depersonalized. For example, take Apple’s first television spot for the original iPad:

Notice anything? No faces. While the ads show plenty of people — hands, feet, and especially fingers — no individuals can be picked out in the advertisement. None. Not a single face. The closest the advertisement comes to celebrity placements come from what appears on the iPad screen: a selection of apps, a promotion for Where the Wild Things Are and (in a slightly unusual move for Apple) a recognizable view of Facebook.

Yet for an advertisement that features no recognizable people, the spot is highly personal, showing how the iPad integrates into people’s lives: playing music (on a piano!), showing charts, reading books, exploring chemistry, surfing the Web, managing photos, and more. And these activities aren’t shown against a white antiseptic backdrop: these are people on trains, sitting at tables, in homes, in meetings — doing real-life stuff.

Not all Apple’s ads omit recognizable people. For instance, advertisements promoting FaceTime, naturally enough, feature plenty of faces — Apple is usually careful to make its ads as inclusive as possible, focusing on everyday activities and — particularly when people are recognizable — often running a series of similar advertisements to spread the appeal. Look at all the hands and feet in the iPad spot, and the faces in the FaceTime ad: Notice the range of ages, sizes, and ethnicities.

These relatively anonymous spots have defined Apple’s television advertising during the iPhone/iPad era — and, let’s not forget, that’s when the majority of Apple’s current customers have come to know the company. But Apple’s flirtation with celebrities goes back much further.

I’m a Mac. I’m a PC. I’m a celebrity.

Mac / PC / Bundchen

For most people, Apple’s most recent use of “celebrities” in its advertising dates back to the 2006 “Get a Mac” campaign, which ran roughly from 2006 to 2010. The humorous spots featured two people — one personifying a Mac, the other personifying a PC — and usually played up the PC’s stodginess and the Mac’s comparative ease of use.

In the United States, it’s easy to think of these commercials as featuring celebrities, but that’s only in hindsight. When the “Get a Mac” campaign started, neither Justin Long (who played the Mac) nor John Hodgman (who played the PC) were particularly notable celebrities. Long had had a supporting part on a now mostly-forgotten television series called Ed, and Hodgman had one (admittedly hysterical) book and a few television appearances to his credit. Their collective star power way dim enough that Apple occasionally brightened it with celebrity appearances, such as model Giselle Bundchen as a personification of a Mac home movie.

Mac / PC / Mitchell Webb

In fact, Apple’s “Get a Mac” commercials in the United States were a bit of an exception to the celebrity rule. In the UK, the same series of ads relied on popular comedians Mitchell and Webb, and in Japan the Mac and PC were played by the well-known comedy duo Rahmens.

Apple loves Hollywood

Apple has been latching the iPhone and iPad to Hollywood productions since before the original iPhone went on sale. Apple initially produced four TV spots promoting the launch of the original iPhone; one of them, the so-called “calamari” ad, namechecks Pirates of the Caribbean (complete with video playback) — that’s about as explicit a tie-in as you can get. At least Sam Jackson isn’t asking Siri about tux rentals for The Avengers premiere.

Samuel Jackson Original iPhone ad

But those weren’t actually the first TV ad for the iPhone: That came during the 2007 Academy Awards telecast, featuring clips of everyone from Marilyn Monroe to Humphrey Bogart to Paul Newman answering phones and saying “Hello.” Guess who else appeared in that ad? Samuel L. Jackson — and that’s not exactly an iPhone he’s holding.

Since Apple’s historic (and highly successful) 1984 commercial introducing, the Macintosh, Apple (and Jobs’ preferred ad firm, TBWA\Chiat\Day) have been fans of the high-profile advertisement that’s only shown once. During Apple’s “Think Different” campaign — featuring images of the likes of John Lennon, Pablo Picasso, Martin Luther Kin Jr., Maria Calas, and Richard Branson — Apple did a one-off commercial that aired during the final episode of Seinfeld (which has since been pulled from YouTube as well).

At the time, it was almost appropriate to position Jerry Seinfeld as “thinking different” — Seinfeld was one of the most popular shows of its era, and Seinfeld’s apartment set had always prominently featured a Macintosh computer in the background. It even shifted through time from a classic black-and-white compact Mac through a 20th Anniversary Macintosh to even an iMac. Of course, Seinfeld then went on to reportedly accept $10 million from Microsoft to promote Windows Vista.

See how well that worked out?

And yet more celebrities…

Apple iPod Ad U2

These examples represent relatively lightweight uses of celebrities in Apple television advertisements. To really see how Apple has relied on star power, you have to jump back to the pre-iPhone era. Apple had a pretty high-profile relationship with U2 for a while, coming out with a (PRODUCT) RED iPod, and getting to feature the arena-packing Irish foursome in television advertising.

And Apple has always loved some stunt casting. Check out this 1993 spot with basketball star Yao Ming beside Vern Troyer (“Mini Me”), respectively touting Apple’s 12-inch and 17-inch G4-based PowerBooks.

Also notice neither of them says a word. The spot is actually a callback to much earlier Apple advertisement featuring Kareem Abdul Jabbar featuring Apple’s original line of PowerBooks. 

The sharp-eared might notice who’s narrating that Ming/Troyer advertisement: That’s Jeff Goldblum, who was Apple’s on-screen celebrity when the company rolled out the first iMac, and continued to narrate Apple’s U.S. commercials for several years. At the time, Goldblum was at perhaps the peak of his Hollywood career, with starring roles in films like Jurassic Park and Independence Day — where, we might add, he saved the world and stopped an alien invasion using an Apple PowerBook. Apple did it’s share of advertising tie-ins with Independence Day as well.

To truly mine the depths of Apple’s love affair with Hollywood, you can’t forget about Tom Cruise. During the company’s death-spiral years, when it was churning out cheap Performas, authorizing companies like Motorola to produce Macintosh clones, and seemingly on the edge of being acquired by a company like Sun, Apple made a huge marketing bet on the 1996 Tom Cruise film Mission: Impossible. The movie was supposed to be the ultimate high-tech spy thriller, and of course featured Apple gadgetry — including the company’s latest and greatest PowerBook — in plenty of cameos. Apple launched a media blitz equally promoting the movie and the PowerBook, and launched a promotional website for the tie-in: The gimmick was that visitors could play a little game and register to win the actual PowerBook Tom Cruise used in the movie. (I know. Exciting.) Of course, the campaign was pretty much a disaster, and Apple’s carefully crafted promotional Web site was even worse — this was the days when loading a promotional site meant downloading half a dozen browser plug-ins that constantly crashed.

We’ve come a long way, haven’t we?

Back in the spotlight

Apple’s use of celebrities to promote its products is nothing new, whether that be during the decade when Steve Jobs was absent from Apple, or in the more-successful era since his return. Apple has never had any issue associating its name with the rich and famous — and even hiring celebrities to be in its advertisements as stunt casting.

Maybe Jackson and Deschanel should be grateful they landed relatively innocuous spots.