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

Black Panther Transmedia: The Revolution Will Not Be Streamed

Written by Niels Niessen

The following text is the introduction of a longer essay published in the Journal for Cinema and Media Studies (2021), https://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/idx/j/jcms/18261332.0060.506/–black-panther-transmedia-the-revolution-will-not-be-streamed?rgn=main;view=fulltext.

The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense and the Black Panther figure of Marvel’s comic book universe were both created in 1966. There was no direct link, however, between the political organization that Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton launched in October that year and the introduction of the first superhero character of African descent a few months earlier in May, in an issue of Fantastic Four (vol. 1, no. 52), which was authored by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Introducing the Black Panther in Fantastic Four, no. 52 (Marvel Comics, 1966).

As Lee states in a 2009 interview:

It was a strange coincidence because, at the time I did the Black Panther, there was a political party in the country— mostly Black people— and they were called The Black Panthers. And I didn’t think of that at all! It had nothing to do with our character, although a lot of people thought there was some tie- in. And I was really sorry— maybe if I had to do it over again, I’d given him another name, because I hate that confusion to be caused. But it really had nothing to do with the then-existing Black Panthers (cited in Clark 2018).  

The 2018 film Black Panther directed by Ryan Coogler also does not make explicit reference to the Black Panther Party. But the film’s promotional materials do indirectly invoke the historical reality in which both Black Panthers appeared in the late 1960s cultural air. One of the film’s promotional posters depicts T’Challa— the reigning Black Panther— in visual citation of the iconic 1967 portrait of Huey P. Newton, seated on a throne, a rifle in one hand, a spear in the other (a photo that in turn was a mockery of colonialist portraiture). Moreover, one of the film’s trailers contains remixed samples of Gil Scott- Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televized,” a track from 1970, which is also the year Black Panther Party membership reached a peak. In this trailer, as the Black Panther flies across the screen, a male voice- over cites the following, tuned to the beat of Vince Staples’s “BagBak” (2017):

            You will not be able to stay home, brother.
            You will not be able to plug in, turn on, and cop out. . . .

            The revolution will not be televised. . . .
            The revolution will be live.

Marvel thus links its Black Panther universe to the long history of African American struggle. These offhand gestures beg the question of how Black Panther’s mainstream Afrofuturism holds up to the political activism it invokes. Does the film merely commodify revolutionary discourse, and wouldn’t such commodification prevent the film from constituting an “act of civic imagination,” as Henry Jenkins has called the film? (Jenkins 2018) Doesn’t Black Panther’s production by Marvel, a subsidiary of Disney, by definition preempt the film from its claim to politics— especially when recalling the imperative of turn-of-the-1970s Third Cinema that a political film must also be made politically? And how to square Black Panther’s imagination of a never-colonized Black nation with Achille Mbembe’s analysis of “Blackness” as a discursive product of colonization?

Addressing these questions, it is important to acknowledge the wide acclaim Black Panther has received from within the African American community. During a special event in Harlem’s Apollo Theater, Ta-Nehisi Coates described the film as “Star Wars for Black People,” sharing with the audience that he “didn’t realize how much [he] needed the film, a hunger for a myth that [addressed] feeling separated and feeling reconnected [to Africa]” (cited in Beta 2018). Similarly, Tre Johnson writes that Black Panther’s greatest legacy is that Black viewers find “a cultural oasis that feels like nothing we’ve seen before” (cited in Johnson 2018). And as Jenkins observes, Black Panther offered “a shared myth desperately needed in the age of Trump: the film inspired many different forms of participatory culture . . . as people fused its iconography into their personal and social identity” (Jenkins 2018).

So yes, following its release, Black Panther has undeniably manifested itself as a political-cultural event, but this does not, of course, prevent a critical reading of the film. That critique is the gravitational point of this essay. I argue that, taken on its own, the Black Panther film only marginally integrates its offhand promotional references to the history of African American resistance. Despite its multiracial cast and strong female characters, Black Panther at the end of the day is built on a conventional Hollywood logic, while its plot purports an anthropocentric American Dream narrative in which humanity masters nature through technology. (Figure 2)

Figure 2. Technology as second nature in Black Panther (Marvel Studios, 2018).

Yet the film cannot just be considered on its own. The film emerges out of and inscribes itself into a transmedia franchise that in recent decades has evolved as a platform for rethinking African American identity in the post–civil rights era. This has been the case under the authorship of Christopher Priest (who wrote the 1998 Black Panther comics volume on which the movie was largely based), Coates (who picked up the comics’ authorship in 2016, starting with A Nation Under Our Feet), and Kendrick Lamar (who cocurated the film’s soundtrack, including the hit single “All the Stars,” performed with the American singer SZA). As Coates writes elsewhere, in Between the World and Me (2015), the dreamed synergy between nature and technology at the heart of the American Dream is an all-too-human construction torching the planet, socially and literally (Coates 2015).

Figure 3. Black Panther’s science fiction of a nation shielded from global heating.

The Black Panther film revels in such phantasmagoric synergy, telling a fairy tale of an extractive utopia, while it has no sight for the exploitation of bodies and ecosystems that marks the reality of every mining economy (Figure 3). In that light Black Panther is like, say, Apple’s new American Dream, in which technology is posited as second nature and which was equally designed in California. Only when the film is considered in the light of its broader transmedia universe does its superhero texture open to the speculative potential that Michael Gillespie and others have embraced as central to film Blackness. As I will argue in the final section, “The Fire in the Sky,” at those moments Black Panther invites its transmedia traveler to think through what Mbembe calls the “Becoming Black of the world” (Mbembe 2017).

Niels Niessen is a Researcher in the Arts & Culture department.

For the full article and bibliographic references see:

https://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/idx/j/jcms/18261332.0060.506/–black-panther-transmedia-the-revolution-will-not-be-streamed?rgn=main;view=fulltext