By Niels Niessen
The following text is the introduction to a longer essay published in Advertising & Society Quarterly (2021). The full text can be read here.
On January 9, 2007, at the Macworld Expo in San Francisco, Apple co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs launched the iPhone. In fact, Jobs started his presentation by announcing three revolutionary new products: “an iPod with touch controls, a revolutionary mobile phone, and an Internet communicator. … So three things … Are you getting it?” The crowd is getting it. “This is one device, today Apple is going to reinvent the phone” (Figure 1). Jobs then continued to demonstrate the iPhone in his signature style, mindfully switching from a Beatles song to Bob Dylan, from a phone call to the photo album, and from a sunny weather forecast to an equally sunny outlook on Apple’s stock. One thing Jobs only mentioned in passing is that the iPhone is also a camera, albeit initially only with two megapixels (MP), and without flash or auto-focus. Almost a decade later that camera became one of the main vehicles driving Apple’s brand identity.
Apple’s advertising of its phone-as-camera, and more generally Apple’s promotion of its brand through photos and videos shot on its devices, took flight with its World Gallery campaign (Figure 2). The campaign was launched in 2015 as part of the marketing of the iPhone 6, by now with an 8MP camera, true tone flash, and phase detection autofocus. For a period of two years, the World Gallery displayed photos shot by iPhone users on billboard ads in urban centers across the globe. The campaign further included print ads, short videos shot by users, and the 2016 TV commercial “Onions,” in which a girl rises to fame thanks to her iPhone. The World Gallery campaign was produced by TBWA\Media Arts Lab, which since 2006 has been Apple’s bespoke creative agency. In 2015, at the Cannes Grand Prix festival for advertising, the campaign won a Golden Lion in the outdoor category, as the jury considered Apple’s campaign a “game changer.”
This essay takes the Shot on iPhone campaign as a lens onto Apple’s new American Dream, designed in Silicon Valley and manufactured in China, under terrible working conditions. The essay asks: What do the images featured in the World Gallery have in common, other than the camera on which they were shot? And what inspiration did Jobs take from Edwin Land, the co-founder of the Polaroid Corporation and the inventor of in-camera instant photography? Taking the World Gallery as its focal point, the essay demonstrates that advertising has always been integral to Apple’s business operations.
The World Gallery is a fascinating campaign. The campaign is modern and postmodern at once, in that it attaches a material product (the iPhone) to an immaterial world view (Apple’s brand image) expressed through images made by means of that product (the iPhone camera) but in such a way that the product’s materiality is effaced (the iDream). And the campaign is analog and digital at once: smartphone photography printed in magazines and on billboards. In a social media era of viral and targeted advertising, in which “messages sent to large groups of people in one swoop” are no longer considered cost effective, Apple advertises with a good old one-message-fits-the-globe strategy.
On that campaign’s modern side, we have traditional billboards that reassure people that whatever they’re doing, it’s ok, you are ok—to paraphrase fictional advertising genius Don Draper in television show Mad Men’s pilot episode “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” (in which Don explains the principles of the 1960s American Dream industry, Figure 3). Advertising, as Welsh social and cultural critic Raymond Williams wrote, is “the official art of modern capitalist society.” In his 1980 essay “Advertising: The Magic System” Williams argues that modern advertising works like magic. By this he means that advertising spins a web of associations around a commodity while obscuring the material reality in which that commodity is produced and consumed. That magical smoke screen is also at work in the World Gallery. The campaign manages to obscure the iPhone’s material reality to the point no iPhone is actually seen in the campaign, and only the iPhone’s feelremains (Figure 4).
At the same time, and on the campaign’s postmodern side, the iPhone’s absent presence expresses Apple’s design philosophy. According to this philosophy, technology becomes intuitive to the point it self-effaces in people’s use of it. In this respect, the iPhone is present in every picture, in the crisp aesthetics that carry the “hyperrealism” of advertising photography to the digital age. In his 1991 book Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Fredric Jameson refers to postmodernism as an “age that has forgotten how to think historically.” Apple’s world picture, its belief in a world made better by design, is the epitome of this postmodern logic detached from historical materiality. The iPhone is designed to be a weightless technology that intuitively yields to the eternal present of digital media streams. The material reality magically veiled in this timeless flow is a capitalist reality, in which on the production side the earth is mined and labor exploited. Meanwhile, on the side of consumption, the iPhone facilitates the control capitalism of data-mining platforms like Google and Facebook, whose digital infrastructures interpellate—i.e., at once address and create—the smartphone user as a dividual. This dividual is what becomes of the individual under control capitalism and its datafying logic: a posthuman subject who is scattered and shattered to the point they’re no longer in-dividual, undivided. The material reality of that scattered dividual contrasts sharply with Apple’s world picture, at once romantic and digital in its aesthetic, of technology as second nature (Figure 5).
The essay has six sections. Section one analyzes the World Gallery. Section two situates the World Gallery within Apple’s advertising philosophy from the late 1970s to the 2020s. Section three argues that Apple’s advertising strategy over the years has become integral to its product design. Section four juxtaposes Apple’s new American Dream to the material reality of digital era capitalism. Section five imagines how people in, say, 125 years from now will look back on the launch of the iPhone. Section six is about apples. Throughout, moreover, the essay is a visual essay that captures Apple’s world image, the feel of its phone—with, in conclusion, a personal touch that I shot on my own iPhone.
For the full essay follow this link.
Niels Niessen is a Researcher in Arts and Culture Studies where he works on the research project Platform Discourses: A Critical Humanities Approach to Tech Companies