Apple’s eye-popping history of visual storytelling

The Mac and iPhone are Apple’s biggest product innovations. But the innovation in its ads and videos is even more significant.

Patrick Holland Managing Editor
Patrick Holland has been a phone reviewer for CNET since 2016. He is a former theater director who occasionally makes short films. Patrick has an eye for photography and a passion for everything mobile. He is a colorful raconteur who will guide you through the ever-changing, fast-paced world of phones, especially the iPhone and iOS. He used to co-host CNET's I'm So Obsessed podcast and interviewed guests like Jeff Goldblum, Alfre Woodard, Stephen Merchant, Sam Jay, Edgar Wright and Roy Wood Jr.
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  • Patrick's play The Cowboy is included in the Best American Short Plays 2011-12 anthology. He co-wrote and starred in the short film Baden Krunk that won the Best Wisconsin Short Film award at the Milwaukee Short Film Festival.
Patrick Holland
6 min read

In addition to its memorable products, Apple is also known for its ads. The company uses video masterfully to sell itself and products. Apple's ads, product launch videos and marketing films reflect thematic threads that the company has carefully spun throughout its history.

Its latest video, the WWDC short film "Appocalypse," is a polished Hollywood-level satire about a future when apps stop working. The topical film shows just how far Apple has evolved comically, cinematically and emotionally in its ads and videos over the years.

Revolution via sledgehammer

"Appocalypse" wasn't Apple's first foray into a cinematic bleak future. The ad "1984" introduced the company and its Macintosh computer to the world, and threw a metaphorical sledgehammer in the face of IBM, the biggest maker of personal computers at the time.

"The '1984' ad was a simple, brilliant middle finger to the personal computer establishment of the day," says filmmaker Patrick Read Johnson.

Cinematic visuals defined "1984," like the tracking shot passing rows of anesthetized people or the slow motion shot of the heroine in orange shorts running with a sledgehammer. The commercial looked like a science fiction film thanks in large part to its director, Ridley Scott (the man behind "Alien," "Blade Runner" and "The Martian").

Apple/YouTube Screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

It also established a visual rule of not showing products or their specs.

"The ad didn't tell you a damn thing about the computer, except that it would be different and revolutionary," says Johnson.

Apple made the lack of products and specs an ongoing motif in its ads and videos in the 2000s.

Simplicity is a white backdrop

The 2006 "Get A Mac" campaign featured Justin Long and John Hodgman as a Mac and PC, respectively. They stood against a bright white backdrop, looked at the camera and said, "Hello, I'm a Mac. And I'm a PC." No products. No dark dystopian futures. No complexity. Just two guys (rather two computers) having a conversation.

Justin Long (right) and John Hodgman (left) starred as Mac and PC in Apple's "Get A Mac" campaign.


The spots looked like a designer magazine ad brought to life with white backgrounds that made Mac and PC pop off the screen.

"For me, clarity, individuality, humanity and authenticity permeate Apple's ads," says designer Michael Hauss.

That clarity and humanity was on full display in the "Get A Mac" campaign. The tone of the spots was friendly. Mac and PC chatted about their capabilities as casually as two good friends talking about hobbies. The viewer wasn't bombarded by specs. Rather, they formed a loveable connection to Mac and PC, and ultimately Apple by association.

Before "Get A Mac," Apple had the 2002 "Switcher" campaign in which everyday people shared woeful stories about using a PC and why they switched to a Mac. Both campaigns used humor to contrast the differences between a Mac and PC. Both were shot on white backgrounds. And both feature people talking directly to the camera.

Apple's keynote videos followed this recipe and featured executives like Jony Ive against a white backdrop introducing a new product. The simplicity of these product launch videos became iconic and spawned numerous spoofs with Conan O'Brien having done some of the best.

Apple has largely done away with this style of ad and video. "Appocalypse" was shot in various real world locations. The actors played scenes in a realistic manner instead of breaking the fourth wall and there are copious shots of Apple products being used.

About the only thing carried over from the white background dynasty was the use of humor. But all these changes didn't vanish overnight. Sometimes you just need to add someone famous.

Celebrities are just like us

As the "Switcher" campaign continued from 2002-2006, the spots eventually replaced the testimonies of regular people with those of celebrities like Tony Hawk, De La Soul and Will Ferrell. But this wasn't Apple's first celebrity rodeo.  

In 1981, Apple's very first ads featured talk-show host Dick Cavett. In 1995, Apple's Power campaign featured George Clinton, Spike Lee, Marlee Matlin and more, each proselytizing about what power meant to them.

This culminated in 1997, when Apple launched its memorable "Think Different" campaign that made the move from celebrities to global and historic icons. Instead of selling computers, the ads were Apple's siren call to people who thought "different".

The original ad featured black-and-white footage of Albert Einstein, Martha Graham, Mahatma Gandhi, among others. This was the keystone video for Apple that connected spots like "1984" with later ads like "Shot On iPhone ."

The visuals of the ad aroused emotion. Its use of black-and-white film gave the spot a timeless, poignant quality. This was in contrast to Dell , which around this time was running its "Dude, you're getting a Dell" campaign.

"At the center of Apple's marketing mission, there has always seemed to be a concentration on our emotional connection to technology," says Johnson.

Apple values how its products make their customers feel and its ads reinforce that by showing that connection between its products and a celebrity people admire.


In recent years, Apple's celebrity ads have featured the likes of Samuel L. Jackson, Cookie Monster and Taylor Swift.


The latest incarnation of celebrity ads started in the spring of 2012 with Samuel L. Jackson, Zooey Deschanel and John Malkovich using the iPhone 4S and continued with celebrities like Taylor Swift using Apple Music.

If "Think Different" embraced the passionate genius, these ads were more relatable: One wanted to be like Samuel L. Jackson and have Siri help make gazpacho. One wanted to be like Drake and lip sync to songs. One wanted to be like Cookie Monster and bake cookies.

The setting for the ads (a kitchen, living room, gym) was an evolution from the white backdrop that defined earlier videos. The walls and trim of the rooms were white or light colored. The environment looked curated like an Architectural Digest magazine spread and these ads marked Apple's return to cinematic visuals.

Real people are more like us

In the last few years, Apple's videos continue deeper into the cinematic vein. The company returned back to using real people in most of its videos. The "Shot on iPhone" campaign started in 2015, features photography and videos made by people on their iPhones. The images are inspiring and emphasize the grand possibilities of an iPhone.


A photo by Elsa Bleda as part of Apple's recent "Shot On iPhone" campaign: "One Night On iPhone 7."

Elsa Bleda

Initially, Apple used a white picture frame around the images like the frame of a printed photograph. This is another evolution of the white backdrop.

In 2014, Apple released a series of ads and short films focused on everyday people doing extraordinary things like "Slow Roll" featuring Jason Hall the co-founder of Slow Roll Detroit who used his iPad to plan ride events.

These videos showcased people using Apple products in genuine ways and were not as overtly instructional as Apple's contemporary celebrity ads. The documentary style videos could have easily been done in a generic talking-head fashion.

"Apple's videos never just exist in the vanilla center of marketing communications," says Hauss. Instead, these videos were imbued with a cinematic elegance and passion that matched the people they featured.

High end production values elevated these short documentaries. But to call them documentaries wouldn't be entirely accurate. The films were a hybrid of documentary subject matter and narrative cinematic visuals. There were wide angle, time lapse, overhead and tracking shots; as well as beautiful closeups of people and the iPad. In this way, it's easy to see the cinematic link between these short docu-narratives and "Appocalypse." These films also showed just how far Apple had moved away from the in-your-face days of "1984,"

Romeo, Juliet and three barbers

Over the past year, Apple evolved its visual storytelling with a series of videos that balance cleverness, product use, emotion and humor. The iPhone 7 Plus ad "Romeo and Juliet" is a great example.

The ad starts out like an Academy Award winning period drama, but instead of adult actors, there are little kids in the roles. Halfway through the spot, it's revealed that all this was a teary-eyed father's perspective, who is filming his daughter's school play on his iPhone 7 Plus. Without explaining the feature, Apple sells the benefit of the iPhone's dual cameras simply through emotion.


The recent spot "Barbers" is one of Apple's most cinematic ads to date.


Another recent ad, "Barbers," uses a similar approach. But instead of relying on emotion, it uses humor and wonderful art direction. Of any ad Apple has made since "1984," "Barbers" is just as cinematic and full of style.

"'Barbers' has a very Wes Anderson-y vibe," says Hauss. "I see a lot of directorial trademarks used to create a filmic look." Anderson's meticulously filmed movies are revered for their highly stylized art direction.

And this can be said about the video "Appocalypse," which is is a wonderful bookend to "1984". Both are cinematic, both depict a troubling future without Apple, and both are masterful in their message. But where they differ is that "Appocalypse" shows a mature Apple that can use the nuance of cinema to make a point instead of just throwing a sledgehammer at the screen.

Apple declined to comment for this article.