Lessons from Apple on Advertising and Aesthetics

June 8, 2010

Steve Jobs announced the iPhone 4 yesterday in his WWDC keynote, and it's a gorgeous device with software upgrades that include multitasking, a video chat app called FaceTime, and more. I'm still a happy Android user, but I have to hand it to Apple. They continue to school the industry on aesthetics and marketing. Case in point: the FaceTime demo video.

First, some background. I got a Sprint EVO at Google I/O which has a front-facing video camera, and presumably the ability to do video calls. So far, I haven't tried it. My general feeling about video calling is "Why?" I hate talking on the phone, so giving someone else the ability to see me while I talk on the phone seems like a yawner. I can't imagine walking around holding my phone out in front of my face to do a video call.

Then I watched the FaceTime video from Apple, which features babies, people in love, grandparents seeing their grandkid in a cap and gown on graduation day, girlfriends showing off new boots, deaf people signing to one another, and the one killer scene that sold me. A soldier, presumably in Iraq or Afghanistan, sits on the edge of his bunk, holding out his iPhone, video-chatting with his pregnant wife/girlfriend at the hospital back home, who is getting an ultrasound. His eyes well up when he sees his kid for the first time.

Maybe it's because I'm a woman in my child-bearing years, but that scene--even as contrived as it was--laid me out. That's the thing about Apple marketing. They don't talk about how many gigabytes of memory or how many CPU cycles or how many apps (much). They aim for your heart, and show you how technology can make your life better during its most important moments.

Contrast this with the Droid ads, which actually scare my friend's two-year-old daughter away from the TV when they come on. The dark, rainy background, the spinning globe of glowing apps, the robot hands poking at them, nary a human in sight.

Droid does. Does what? Show, don't tell.

I'm really glad the new iPhone has been officially announced, and that Apple continues to set the bar for beautiful software and clear communication about the intersection of technology and life.

Update: I didn't fully address the "aesthetics" part of my thesis in this post, but in short, it's that the iPhone operating system has a polish and level of design quality that no other mobile OS has. I haven't tried iPhone 4 myself yet, but the crazy-high resolution retina display and the multitasking/folders demo especially left me green with envy. I'd love to be able to switch between running apps so beautifully on Android.

Those ads are by Verison, right? Though less effective, the only Google ads I can think of are the “Search stories” ones, which at least tried to be human and alive.

John Vining [+1]
Jun 8 10 at 8:37 am

This commercial was also supposedly directed by Sam Mendes. Apple’s always had a knack for getting some top-notch talent behind their commercials.

darklighter [+6]
Jun 8 10 at 8:50 am

So… from this I learn that:

Blonde women need not apply
Black women need not apply
Red heads need not apply
Non-Asians probably won’t get the part
The only cool colors are white and beige
Your house is only cool if it is stark.

I’m with you Gina. I think video chat would have caught on a long time ago if we all really wanted it. Apple acts like they are the inventors of the technology.

You may be green with envy over that multitasking issue, but at least your phone calls go through!

What Verizon ought to show is people talking on the phone at football games, checking stats at a basketball game in an arena, and sending video at concerts…because their network actually WORKS. Those of us on iPhones are relegated to being able to use all of its functionality when we are at home or the office…where we have REAL computers to do all of that stuff sitting two feet away.

dmccall [+6]
Jun 8 10 at 9:00 am

I agree, Apple is as good at marketing and properly ‘framing’ their products as they are at engineering them…however, as an unemployed IT guy sitting in the middle of a State for which bankruptcy would be a welcome relief, seeing happy people do things that I and many like me will never be able to afford paints a rather melancholy patina, and in a way highlights the desperate emotional manipulation going on beneath this commercial. In this same vein, isn’t the dark void of Android’s post-human efficiency an almost refreshing appeal to what should be the point of technology, leveraging our reason and intellect and minimizing the mistakes caused by our emotions…lovely coincidence we have two wars going on to really put the emotional punch into the infomercial for yet another gadget far too overpowered for it’s intended infrastructure…there might be a lesson there…

I am flush now, having reread the above, with the realization I am being a wet blanket…I wonder why people always think I am so anti-apple?

Good article, and I am with you on the ‘meh’ factor of video chat; although helping people fix their computers remotely is WAY easier if you can see what the other people are seeing…

If you’re looking for folders and iOS 4.0-like task switching, there are apps for that:

http://bit.ly/cUoqRm

http://bit.ly/9h43fq

Sure, installing a third party app to customize the user interface isn’t quite as elegant as building these features into the OS. But it’s nice using a platform that *allows* UI customization.

Brad Linder [+2]
Jun 8 10 at 9:15 am

A lot of people are critical of the droid ads, but the fact is people remember them (even if they are annoyed by them). That ad campaign has worked very well. They have sold a ton of droids and now the general public knows what a an(droid) phone is. I know a ton of people (of both sexes), that have bought droids this past year. Not because they like the ads, but when they go to verizon, they know what the iphone equivalent is there. That’s the point of advertising. The Aesthetics are really secondary.

Chris Davis [+3]
Jun 8 10 at 9:15 am

Google are great @PR/Adv…Didn’t Google gave you the Evo for FREE;)

Also, they probably got the recored for saying the word “OPEN”x1000…On the other hand, Privacy is an invisible word to them.

*Return the FREE Evo and will talk.

Ron.
Denmark.

Ron Love [+4]
Jun 8 10 at 9:33 am

Just remember, it uses pseudo-multitasking. It is not classic client/server multitasking as on Android.
There are apps you simply can’t do for the iPhone, if they do not fit neatly within the preconceived constraints defined by Apple: Background Audio, Voice over IP (VOIP) and Background Location.

Casper Bang [+1]
Jun 8 10 at 9:39 am

I’ve always loved the idea of video chat, but it’s hard to work with. I’ve been able to do video chats on my computer for years but don’t bother because the people you want to talk to need to use the same platform as you, and many people just don’t see the point.

This focus on marketing and the user is the reason for Apple’s success. Microsoft is too busy with the corporate world, and Google seems too focused on power users.

Overall, while I like the new screen and processor, and love the idea of the front facing camera, I can’t find any reason to upgrade my 3GS to the new iPhone. It just doesn’t seem to offer quite enough.

I reserve the right to change my mind if, by some miracle, all my friends decide to get it and start video chatting with each other.

Nfora
Jun 8 10 at 10:52 am

Hm… not sure about this one Gina. Video on a mobile isn’t anything new, and what Apple did, is just adding an Apple layer on top of this.

Well, I always thought that all the ‘creative’ Apple users would figure out what they could do with a front facing camera, but no, they have to have it lay flat in front of them.

In my opinion they haven’t done anything significant.

savocado [+8]
Jun 8 10 at 11:35 am

@Savocado: You do understand that this is live, two-way video chat, and not just the capture and playback of video files, yeah? As far as im aware, thats pretty unprecedented for the device class.

@Casper: Ill be sure to explain to my mom about how the background API services may not cover all potential use cases, as soon as i explain to her what background multitasking is. And then she will look at me and ask, “can i still make calls, and check my email, and go on the web, and play games, and play my music on it?”

The truth is, the vast majority of end users dont care about the technical details, or the feature list, or “the power” of their device. They arent buying the devices as tech enthusiasts, they just want to do the things they want to do, and do it pleasantly and with as few barriers to entry and process as possible. User experience is going to win with that broader audience everytime.

Matt Rooney [+3]
Jun 8 10 at 11:45 am

This is a post about the effectiveness of Apple’s advertising. Yet it still manages to draw people that will say: “Hey, it doesn’t do true multitasking!” Or, “Hey, Apple doesn’t invent anything, they just copy it.”

Why must everyone choose sides in the Google-Apple War? And then declare their allegiance at every opportunity?

@greg: Solid point, I should have made a stronger attempt to “bring it back” – i think apple’s advertising reflects the difference in audience I was describing. They sell on experience, not on features – the features shown are a function of the experience.

Droid’s promotion has been around features, capability, power, generally following the “this is badass, and is for/will make you a badass” school of selling tech, which, while definitely valid, has imo a fairly narrow demographic to sell to.

Apple (really Chiat/Day, if i remember right) has chosen to go with a broader approach that sells on user experience and feelings, not “look what it does” but “look what you can do.” Its a powerful approach to take, because it doesnt require that the viewer come into it with any existing tech knowledge, or even a comfortableness with tech to begin with. The user is shown a series of people engaging in a compelling task, and having no problem doing it. Its a solid approach.

Matt Rooney [+3]
Jun 8 10 at 12:29 pm

Wait till the next iPad version comes out with forward-facing camera and this functionality. With the bigger screen it will be a very big deal. I’m holding out for that but this phone is tempting me away from Verizon and my dreadful Droid.

Martin Edic [+1]
Jun 8 10 at 12:35 pm

The FaceTime (am I the only one who thinks about Borat / ‘Sexy Time’ every time I hear FaceTime?) commercial is really well done.

Will it sell more iPhones or increase usage of FaceTime? I have no idea. All I know is that it was a really well done commercial.

Sunday I was ready to buy an Android phone soon.

Monday came and not only do I want an iPhone 4, but it’s like I drank the Kool-aid and I’m trying to convince my fiance that she needs one as well.

The other thing that people aren’t mentioning is the new data plan prices. $30 a month is what keeps regular people from jumping to a smart phone. The $15 plan is like a gateway drug to get you to pump your money into at&t.

Well played at&t, well played.

Chris Bartow
Jun 8 10 at 1:08 pm

@Matt: Also don’t forget to tell her about the POSIX model and the OSI model while you are at it!

Seriously, is it conceivable that there are other arguments than “it’s all about the user experience” when it comes to Apple products?

How will you defend the lackluster notification mechanism, that only allows one message which is always popping up right smack in the middle of whatever else the user is doing?

Casper Bang [+1]
Jun 8 10 at 1:15 pm

When most of us have think of video calling we think of corporate calls, or Star Trek, or non-emotional communication (or rather unseemly communication). Video calling also seems futuristic (which, ironically, is the whole point of Droid ads: “It’s the future! There are robots moving everything! Listen to the groan of the powerful processors! You now live in the Matrix!”)

But Apple will simply transcend all of that technology with this ad campaign. Rarely will technology seem so inviting and lovely. And isn’t that the point? They will reach an absolutely huge audience.

I’ll be buying the iPhone 4. It’ll be my first smartphone, and the first thing I’ve ever pre-ordered.

Ali [+1]
Jun 8 10 at 1:33 pm

@Savocado: Besides effortless simplicity, what Apple brings is critical mass. When there are tens of millions of iPhone 4 users (this year) who can launch a video call by just touching the video icon after they’ve phoned someone, this will get used. All the barriers to everyman use of video chat have suddenly been removed.

Norm Margolus
Jun 8 10 at 2:18 pm

@casper: I wont defend it. It needs attention and improvement. Im not gonna pretend like everything apple does is right.

Granted, as a UX professional ill admit to being a bit biased towards the cause of Good User Experience, but IMO we have a very bad habit of giving a pass to computers and anything related – focusing on their power, their featureset, the raw numbers as a holdover from when these devices were considered to be arcane and complex and only understood by those of us who were “good at computers.”

I argue from the user experience angle, because Apple puts UX forward as a foundation principle in their products, and markets from that position. Some other companies/orgs also seem to get this and are making strides – Ubuntu seems to find something about their desktop experience to improve with each release. Ultimately some of us keep wanting to evaluate things like the iphone as a *computer*, where in reality the fact its a computer is incidental to what it does and what it is expected to do.

UX is hard – its easier to go with the logic and cold, quantifiable reality of tech specs than the much much fuzzier and harder to pin down Good Experience. To use an analogy: “what the meal lacks in flavor, it makes up for in portion size.” And sometimes, you just need to be full, but most of the time you want your meal to taste good too.

Matt Rooney [+3]
Jun 8 10 at 3:03 pm

“Droid does. Does what? Show, don’t tell.”

But if they showed it actually doing what it does, you’d see that it’s nothing more than a pretty-good facsimile of the #1 smart phone for humans.

Lellius Rose
Jun 8 10 at 3:28 pm

I will simply answer with my response that i blogged before you wrote this post – prescient, or just that we in open source, mac, the whole tech shebang, are asking, pondering about this stuff – or should be!

Why Open Source needs Apple – and so does the rest of the industry…

(Not trawling for reads, but why repost it in entirety here?)

timelady [+1]
Jun 8 10 at 3:35 pm

@Matt Rooney
“@Savocado: You do understand that this is live, two-way video chat, and not just the capture and playback of video files, yeah? As far as im aware, thats pretty unprecedented for the device class.”

It is precedented. It’s been around in Europe for quite some time in different mobile devices. Further more, it’s already there on the Evo 4G that launched recently via the Qik app. It’s also been in Windows Mobile in various forms. I do not deny that Apple might get more traction out of it than the other iterations, but it is precedented.

tenley [+2]
Jun 9 10 at 8:05 am

@tenley: Thanks for that, i guess i wrote before looking it up :)

Matt Rooney [+3]
Jun 9 10 at 8:42 am

How do we feel about Apple making FaceTime an “Open Industry Standard”? What does that mean exactly?

Will we see Android phones with FaceTime? BlackBerries?

When I had a BlackBerry i noticed that people were very attached to BlackBerry Messenger, but you could only communicate with other BlackBerry users. It kind of bummed me out that I couldn’t just chat with anyone. Maybe Apple is trying to avoid FaceTime just being an iPhone only thing, and countering the “closed” accusations by having a few things to point to that are “open”.

Eugene Huo
Jun 9 10 at 8:55 am

Sorry, but I disagree. So what can you say about this amazing and universally acclaimed “YOU” HTC campaign?

Eli DeOliveira
Jun 9 10 at 2:01 pm

Aesthetics- yes
Advertising- Not so much

1 part Steve’s Reality Distortion Field combined with 2 parts information cascade= must have this new iPad, iPhone,or idontreallycarewhatitisbutiknowineedonenow

Garmon Estes [+2]
Jun 9 10 at 7:59 pm

Eh. Droid is aimed at the male segment, so advertising it with babies and married couples and stuff like that would kill brand loyalty at this point. It’s supposed to be ‘cool’ and ‘badass’ – not heart-warming.

I mean, if the Droid commercials had babies in it, I honestly wouldn’t have one. Crap advertising like that makes me angry (almost as much as babies do). I have the Droid because it’s a good phone that honestly does kick ass. Even the industrial design of the phone gets that idea across.

Jeff Koromi
Jun 11 10 at 10:24 am

I have found that FaceTime may not work behind some corporate firewalls even if the use can access web sites. My wife and I have tried several times from my office to home but it has always failed. It works very well from places that have open Wi-Fi.

Khürt Williams [+1]
Jul 12 10 at 6:22 am


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