What would Steve Jobs think of Apple’s culture-crushing advert?

This is a tale of two advertisements. And about the company that made them – Apple Inc. The first ad ran during the Super Bowl in 1984. It was made by Ridley Scott, the celebrated movie director. The vibe is distinctly Orwellian: set in a vast, darkened auditorium dominated by a giant screen entirely filled by a sinister-looking talking head, who is clearly Big Brother (BB).

The opening shot shows lines of drably uniformed, shaven-headed zombies marching in lock-step into the building. “Today,” intones the talking head, “we celebrate the first glorious anniversary of the information purification directives.”

Enter a young female athlete running while carrying a large sledgehammer and being pursued by helmeted riot troops. “We have created for the first time in all history,” booms BB, “a garden of pure ideology, where each worker may bloom, secure from the pests of any contradictory true thoughts. Our unification of thoughts is more powerful a weapon than any fleet or army on earth.”

The athlete continues to run, with the goons closing in on her. “We are one people, with one will, one resolve, one cause,” continues BB. “Our enemies shall talk themselves to death and we will bury them with their own confusion.”

The athlete whirls the hammer several times and then lets it go.

“We shall prevail!” roars BB, just before the hammer hits the screen and it explodes. Cue wide shot of zombies, open-mouthed, and a voiceover declares: “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like Nineteen Eighty-Four.”

You didn’t need to be an expert in semiotics to get the message. Big Brother was IBM, then the domineering Goliath of the computer industry. And Apple was the plucky newcomer armed only with its slingshot, the Macintosh.

Now spool forward four decades – to 7 May. Another Apple advertisementthis time announcing the arrival of a new iPad Pro tablet powered by the company’s new M4 processor. It opens with a vinyl record playing and a metronome ticking away. Then it pulls back to reveal a large pile of analogue devices and accessories sitting in a gigantic hydraulic press of the kind used in Bond movies to turn car bodies into flattened sheets of metal. The press starts to bear down on the contents, and in due course everything is crushed and paints of different colours spurt out until all has been destroyed. And then, magically, after the machine has retreated, there’s a gleaming rectangular tablet. “The most powerful iPad ever,” says a voiceover, is also the thinnest.” Finas they say in France.

The video is powerful and revolting in equal measure – as Alex Clark pointed out last week. But it is also usefully revealing about what has happened to Apple over the past four decades. For it is now a (if not the) Goliath of the tech industry. David with his Macintosh has grown into a dominant monopolist, powerful enough to strip $10bn of ad-sales revenue from Meta with a single change in its operating system, for example. No longer a cheeky outlier, but a pillar of the establishment.

The video also triggered ironic memories of a 2011 Apple video – one in which Steve Jobs announced that the GarageBand app would run on the iPad 2. Jobs delightedly explained how the app could realistically emulate musical instruments – pianos, drums, guitar, etc – and that you could also plug real instruments into it. Some of them were instruments that the “crush” video showed being destroyed the other day.

There was such a pushback over the new ad that Apple withdrew it and rescinded plans to air it on television. According to a senior executive, it had “missed the mark”. On the contrary: it had merely revealed an inconvenient truth – that at heart Apple is merely another giant corporation.

What I’ve been reading

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There’s a scary account of Trump’s plans for a second term by the historian Heather Cox Richardson – read it on her Substack.

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