Does Apple's use of famous stars in ads show weakness?

It's rare for Apple to lean on famous people to sell its wares. Does its current use of John Malkovich, Samuel L. Jackson, and Zooey Deschanel show a certain populist crassness? Or even a lack of ideas?

Apple Screenshot: Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

Last night, while watching LeBron James attempt to finally justify the size of his head, John Malkovich appeared on my TV to remind me of Siri's great wit .

It's a pleasant ad.

Yet something suddenly struck me: how often has Apple resorted to using famous people to be its spokespeople? You could argue that all the faces in "Here's To the Crazy Ones" were famous. But they were inanimate -- and, in many cases, actually dead.

You could also argue that the use of U2 and Coldplay to push iPods was also the use of famous people.

And yet I cannot remember (caveat: it is early Sunday morning) an ad in which a famous person was asked to be be a shiller for an Apple product, as Samuel L. Jackson, Zooey Deschanel, and Malkovich are currently doing.

There is talk that a certain Schiller is behind the shillers. In a profile by Bloomberg Businessweek this week, the suggestion was that Apple's SVP of product marketing, Phil Schiller, is something of a crass hype-merchant.

Here was the operative critical sentence: "Some fear he will be a more conventional leader, prone to hyping products in ways that tarnish Apple's hard-won brand loyalty."

This would suggest that for the last 15 years (he rejoined Apple in 1997), he's been desperate to overhype Apple's products and been held back by Steve Jobs' rather more exalted taste.

At the very minimum, then, he must be patient and resilient.

Yet there is surely some truth in the idea that, in the last few years, Apple's ads have been pleasant, but often forgettable. The iPad launch ads -- featuring knees, thighs, and no faces -- weren't exactly riveting. The product, though, was. The ads merely served -- in their own way -- to make access to the iPad ubiquitous.

This wasn't some cool product, Apple was saying. This baby's for everyone.

Resorting to famous people, though, suggests that an Apple product actually needs endorsement. It's as if the Apple brand name isn't enough to persuade people that Siri is a fine and witty aide.

The stars are cool enough, of course. It's not as if Kathy Lee Gifford had been wheeled out to ask Siri about Martin Short's wife. Yet some will surely wonder whether Steve Jobs would have approved them. ("What? Dylan's not available?")

At heart, though, the best Apple ads are always the products.

The ads have generally played a supporting role, building the right atmosphere around a genuinely different new product. It's possible, then, that Apple (like those who have sued the company for its Siri ads ) doesn't think all that much of Siri.

At tomorrow's Worldwide Developers Conference, will Schiller stand on stage and reveal some astounding, unexpected product? Or might he unveil some interesting little developments which are backed by ads that overreach?

Life can be so much more difficult when you're no longer mining a spiritual niche, but trying to take over the world.

 

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