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Apple's marketing at 40: From reality distortion to the real thing

Technically Incorrect: Apple's marketing and its brand have changed over the years. What have they become?

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.

It's a very different show now, isn't it, Tim? Apple's a very different brand.

Josh Miller/CNET

The rebel has turned to kindness.

The challenger has begun to look like Big Brother, even as it's fighting the forces of Even Bigger Brother.

It's tempting to think that Apple's persona hasn't really changed in the 40 years since that whole Steve J.-Steve W. startup thing.

But it has, and how.

So many accusations have been leveled at Silicon Valley for using marketing to mesmerize consumers into buying products that were neither magical nor revolutionary.

The phrase "reality distortion" was used often in Steve Jobs' day. He was to some a hoodwinker who, if there was a problem with the antenna of an iPhone, told you it was obviously your fault. You were holding it wrong.

In marketing, the company began as a rebel. Its us-against-the-world phase was defined by the "1984" ad taunting IBM that ran only once and by the long-running "Get A Mac" campaign mocking Microsoft.

Apple was mock 'n' roll.

Through artistry and wit, Apple showed itself to be young, cool and human -- everything technology was not.

The products themselves carried far more of the marketing burden than did the advertising, which offered a pristine white background, played some interesting music and then swiftly got out of the way. Every time you saw the brilliant, stylish, humanistic design of Apple's gadgets, you were hooked on the brand.

The rebel was making you feel something. And it was something good. It was something else entirely when your office forced you to use some dull old clunk they called a PC.

For years, competitors such as Microsoft had no instinctive understanding of Apple's brand benefits because they were run by diehard nerds for whom power and specs were all.

It's different now.

Apple is a much bigger brand, often voted the most admired in the world. But as its reach has extended across the globe, as its volumes and profits have skyrocketed, its marketing has become slightly recessive.

If I asked you to name a memorable Apple ad from the last five years, I think you'd struggle. I struggle.

Perhaps the best was the 2013 Christmas ad featuring an apparently rebellious, self-absorbed kid who isn't so inhuman after all. A fine metaphor for the company, perhaps.

Far more often now, Apple is the brand that gets mocked. Yes, even by Microsoft. The biggest global brands tend to become the biggest global blands.

So Apple is softer. It's constantly spreading warmth, featuring far more humans in its ads. It's still relying on its staged events and, almost Trump-like, on the media's constant need to write and speculate about it. But there's a deeper change underlying it all.

Tim, teens and changing times

The forceful entry by CEO Tim Cook into fighting for social justice and privacy are far stronger pieces of marketing than any ad Apple produces these days. They're statements of intent and show a humanistic understanding of the directions in which American society -- and especially younger generations -- are moving.

The company has never been fond of social media. Apple Support only recently opened a Twitter account. If you look at the viral success of ads, Samsung is trouncing Apple. Where the Korean company offers Lil' Wayne, Apple musters the far less edgy Jamie Foxx. Oh, and Selina Gomez.

It's staggering, therefore, that an overwhelming majority of teens crave an iPhone above all other brands. It's even more staggering when you consider that Apple's phones have lost some originality in design, whereas some of Samsung's -- especially the Galaxy S7 Edge -- are visually more innovative.

Even Apple's events have become softer self-parodies of what went before. You can't expect showmanship from Cook. Times have changed. Think different, indeed.

At 40, a bulkier Apple is much less the rebel of its youth and more the establishment figure throwing its weight around.

The brand still defends style, as you can see from its hiring of designer Marc Newsom and former Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts. You can even see it in new store designs that eliminate the Genius Bar.

In sheer power, it hasn't lost its edge. It's just lost its edgy. The Apple brand has edged away from revolution and moved closer to Coke.

It's real, it's global, and it's warm, and the only brand it's going to mock these days is the FBI. (Though Apple's global marketing chief, Phil Schiller, still thinks anti-PC jokes are funny.)

This is an opportunity for a new brand to come in and rebel against this bigger, more corporate Apple.

That's one of the biggest conundrums of the tech world. Apple is 40 but there's no young, rebellious pretender to Apple's throne at all.