Shot on iPhone: Apple’s World Picture

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.

Still from the 2007 keynote event at which Steve Jobs launched the iPhone.

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.”

Apple’s 2015 World Gallery campaign

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.

Don Draper in Mad Men (AMC): “Advertising is based on one thing: happiness.”

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).

Apple’s World Gallery

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).

Apple’s World Gallery

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

Touching the surface

By Vincent Meelberg

Touch might be the most important sense we
human beings have. Touch puts us in direct, constant contact with the outside
world. And perhaps that might be the reason why this sense is so problematic.
Touch implies intimacy and closeness, and these are phenomena that the
(Western) world finds increasingly difficult to cope with. On the one hand, we
are no longer sure when it is appropriate to touch someone. On
the other hand, however, the temptation to touch is always present. This is one
of the reasons why New York City Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Chair of the Task
Force on Women’s Issues Aravella Simotas
recently announced the passage of
 to assure that a sentence of up to one year of
imprisonment may be imposed for a person “who makes inappropriate physical contact with
another person while traveling on a mode of public transportation.” Apparently people are so eager to touch others, even without consent, that they need a law to hold them back.

Yet, as many studies have shown, physical contact between human beings – provided it is mutually agreed upon – is vital. Physical contact and reassurance will make
people more secure and better able to form relationships. David J. Linden, a neuroscience professor at
Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the author of Touch: The
Science of Hand, Heart, and Mind
adds during an interview in The Atlantic: “More
than anything else, what touch conveys is ‘I’m an ally, I’m not a threat.
Touch puts the recipient in a trusting mental state, and anything you can do to
encourage the student to trust the teacher is going to make learning
better.“ And let’s face it: it is often simply very enjoyable to be
touched and to touch someone else.


Interestingly, the way we interact with
non-human entities is increasingly through direct touch as well. Until a few
years ago the way we interacted with phones and computers was by pushing
buttons. And while pushing implies touching too, this interaction remained very
indirect. One never really had the sensation of literally touching the
information that was being manipulated by the touching of buttons. All this
changed with the introduction of the iPhone. One of the reasons this device became such a huge
success was its user interface. Instead of trying to hit the correct tiny
physical buttons in order to write an email, for instance, suddenly the user
could type directly on the screen and had the possibility to literally touch
the Internet via multi-touch. It indeed was a magical experience, as Steve Jobs
liked to stress over and over again.


Nowadays, most phones use multi-touch, and
tablets such as the iPad could not have existed without this technology. So,
what does the fact that we have no problem touching the surface of our devices,
but are very reluctant to touch another person, say about Western society? Have
we arrived at a stage where we are more comfortable
being intimate with our phones than with human beings? When we take into
account that we use these devices to communicate with other people and that
direct personal contact is gradually being superseded by these mediated forms
of communication, the pessimistic conclusion might be that direct interpersonal
relations are indeed becoming increasingly rare, and therefore touching someone
may become the exception rather than the rule.


I think I need a hug…

Music as Apps

By Vincent Meelberg


Hardly anyone could have missed the news regarding the new iPhone. In a well-orchestrated keynote presentation, held last month, Apple introduced the most recent iteration of its immensely successful product, again claiming that it is “the best iPhone ever.” Be it as it may, this wonderful device has caused the demise of another, former, hit product created by Apple: the iPod. Along with the introduction of the iPhone 6 the iPod Classic was quietly discontinued.

Of course, the iPod Touch, basically an iPhone without a phone, still exists, but this is a completely different device. An iPod Classic was a device devoted exclusively to music listening. Your entire music collection could be stored on its 160 Gb hard drive. The iPod Touch, on the other hand, does not have that storage capacity. Moreover, it is not meant as a music player, but as an interactive media device.

Perhaps at first sight this might not seem as a big deal, but the fact that Apple, one of the pioneers regarding the digital distribution of music, no longer offers a dedicated music player, may be indicative of a more general trend: a change in the way people appreciate music. In a rather nostalgic article, Wired’s Mat Honan links the disappearance of the iPod Classic to the fact that we are no longer defined by our music, music that we bought, owned, and collected. And I believe he is correct. Even though services such as Spotify and Rdio make most (but definitely not all) recorded music available to their users, creating a playlist in these services is not the same as collecting LPs, CDs, or even iTunes tracks. We no longer need to invest time and money in our music collection, and therefore the value we ascribe to music has changed.

Peter Kirn has a different take on these developments and discusses another recent phenomenon: releasing music as apps. Apps are particularly suited to devices such as the iPhone and iPod Touch, for they use both images and sound and invite interaction. Therefore, releasing music as apps turns music into something more than mere sounds, but at the same time transforms the way we define music. Take Björk’s Biophilia, for instance, one of the first examples of music as app. This app is almost a work of art, with excellent graphics that ask to be touched and manipulated. I have the app myself, but I still haven’t actually listened to the songs themselves. I’ve heard snippets of music while playing with the app, but I cannot really recall any of the songs. So, is music as app the future of music, or will it turn music into something else, a game perhaps?

Image credits: Fe Ilya via Shared under creative commons