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Our 9 favorite Apple ad campaigns, ranked

From “Think Different” to “Shot on an iPhone,” we rank the most memorable Apple ads.

Lynn La Senior Editor / Reviews - Phones
Lynn La covers mobile reviews and news. She previously wrote for The Sacramento Bee, Macworld and The Global Post.
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.
Expertise Apple, iPhone, iOS, Android, Samsung, Sony, Google, Motorola, interviews, coffee equipment, cats Credentials
  • 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.
Lynn La
Patrick Holland
7 min read
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Watch this: Top 9 Apple ad campaigns

With Apple's WWDC just around the corner next week, we took the opportunity to look back at some of the tech giant's popular ad campaigns and advertisements. We ranked the popular ones based on effectiveness, how memorable they were and the very unscientific concept of general "feelings."

In addition, we do acknowledge that the ads we show below are just one part of larger campaigns that include print ads and other mediums too. Though it'd be great to consider all these parts cohesively, for the sake of simplicity, we keep our dialogue mostly about the video ads themselves.

If you want more ad-goodness, peep at our honorable mentions below. And be sure to check back with CNET for all our WWDC coverage, which starts Monday, June 5.

#9: 1984 (January 1984)

Patrick: This was back when Apple was the underdog against the Big Blue of IBM . The ad was so radical when it came out.

Lynn: Being born after 1984, this commercial was presented to me as some big historical Superbowl ad. But I never understood the big deal. I know I'm going to catch a lot of flak for that.

Patrick: At the time, the big deal was that the ad was so original and groundbreaking, not to mention Ridley Scott directed it. But as part of a bigger campaign, it wasn't Apple's best. It didn't help put a Macintosh into everyone's living room.

Lynn:  It was so ominous, but compared to Orwell's "1984," Apple overstated itself didn't it? Who knew that using IBM computers would lead to a dystopia?

Patrick: Yeah that dystopia apparently got worse. In January 1985, Apple released the much darker "Lemmings" ad in the same vein. Workers shuffle off a cliff while a weird version of "Whistle While You Work" plays. And this was filmed by Tony Scott, you know -- the guy who made "Top Gun"!

Lynn: I would have preferred sexy beach volleyball if that's the case.

Patrick: Exactly.

#8: There's An App For That (February 2009)

Patrick: The original iPhone didn't even have an App Store. This was a clever way introduce people to the idea of apps and the iPhone 3G .

Lynn: Looking back at this ad now, it's not memorable. But it's funny how it makes the 3G look innovative, given what the iPhone 7 can do today in comparison. It's a good trip down memory lane. Look at that skeuomorphism!

Patrick: "There's an app for that" became such a catchphrase, too. I remember joking with a friend that someone should make a rival ad, "There's a website for that".

Lynn: I wonder if the ad were to run now how different it'd be. "Looking for a late-night hookup? There's an app for that."

Patrick: Yeah, just swipe right.

#7: Apple Watch Series 2 (September 2016)

Lynn: This was like an update on the iPod silhouettes with these kind of vague figures using a visually clear and distinct product. Except instead of assuming these figures are in shape, you know that they are.

Patrick: I like the song, but these silhouettes aren't as cool as the iPod ones. I mean nothing sells products like an ad that shows you swimming in a badly lit pool and riding a badly lit bike.

Lynn: They do make me feel bad and anxious about myself, as any good ad does. Why am I not in shape? Why is my life not that exciting? How come I haven't been in an infinity pool yet? I already bought the $60 athleisure sweatpants. Now I gotta buy this?!

Patrick: What did you think of in the middle when the ad pauses to "take a breath"?

Lynn: If they wanted to be more realistic, they should have shown people collapsing and throwing up on the pavement. Or me running my 14-minute mile.

#6: Switcher (June 2002)

Patrick: These are fun, light and approachable. The plucky banjo is warm and quirky.

Lynn: These ads also mimicked the feeling of hearing about a product from your friend by word-of-mouth, which is the gold standard for any successful campaign, isn't it?

Patrick: Definitely. But in a way, Apple presents itself as the sensible underdog against the confusing dominant Windows computer. It does what "1984" did, but in a funny personal way.

Lynn: At the time, Apple was still something you had to be in-the-know about and you could get away with evangelizing. Now that it's the big dog though, you'd be totally obnoxious if you were praising Apple like this.

Patrick: Also, when this ad came out people became obsessed with Ellen Feiss, the seemingly stoned teenager in one of the ads. She became one of the first viral celebrities before that was a thing.

Lynn: I am unfamiliar with that and I'm glad I missed that. Kind of sounds creepy.

Patrick:  It was.

#5: Get a Mac, aka: Mac vs. PC (May 2006 - October 2009)

Lynn: This was when Apple hit peak obnoxiousness culturally. Even though this ad had a "friendly" tone it was still kind of pretentious. It helped fuel a lot of Apple backlash and got parodied so much for good reason. On the flip side, it helped let everyone know what the Apple Mac was.

Patrick: This builds off the "Switch" campaign, and still uses Apple's same approach to most of its campaigns: us (Apple) vs. them (PC).

Lynn: Yes, but with just a sprinkle of ageism. Even if there is only a seven-year age difference between the actual actors. I stand by my accusation!

Patrick: All implied ageism aside, when the ads first started to air they were funny and cute. But over time they jumped the shark and became self-referential. I really do like how despite their differences, you like both "PC" (John Hodgman) and "Mac" (Justin Long).

Lynn: I liked Long since his "Ed" days on NBC.

Patrick: I liked Hodgman since his days on "The Daily Show." So Lynn, who are you, Mac or PC?

Lynn: Linux?!

#4: Shot on iPhone (2014-present)

Lynn: Beautiful people and images? Check. Powerful voiceover by uber-inspiring person? Check. Content sourced from the users and fans themselves? Check. This ad does all the things!

Patrick: I like this campaign a lot. Like "Think Different", it's inspiring and about showing you what you are capable of creatively. It fits well with the iPad Air ad that featured Robin Williams' speech from "Dead Poets Society". Angelou and Whitman, way to go Apple (stands on desk and watches Apple walk out the door).

Lynn: Also, these ads were great to build an even stronger fanbase. My friend got featured in a billboard for one of the earliest "Shot on an iPhone" ads. Of course, everyone was stoked for him.

Patrick: You know he ain't ever switching to Android after that.

#3: Misunderstood (December 2013)

Lynn: I was so pissed at that kid the first time I was watching this commercial. I have a thing about being on the phone in front of friends and I wanted to bat that thing away out of the kid's hands.

Patrick: Yeah, that kid is totally "that guy" filming his family instead of being with his family.

Lynn: Yes, but then TWIST! It was so good at the end. Damn you Apple. Pulling at my heartstrings during the holidays.

Patrick: Honestly, I haven't stopped crying since 2013.

Lynn: I'd have to say this is up there as one of my favorites. It feels like a beautiful mini one-minute movie. I'm expecting yet another installment this year. Apple iPhone 2: Electric Boogaloo Cuts More Onions.

#2: iPod silhouettes (2003-2008)

Lynn: These ads take me back, man. These iPod silhouettes were so formative to my teenage years. They were the theme to my highschool yearbook! I kid you not.

Patrick: As an adult person, these ads wanted to make me dance. Those white earbuds became a status symbol of coolness. They still are, really.

Lynn: I also liked the idea of the faces and bodies being silhouetted. I didn't feel intimidated by cool dancers with (likely) super hot bodies while watching these ads. These people could be me! Dancing in my room with my iPod while nobody's watching.

Patrick: Also, I am so tired of U2.

Lynn: Ah yes, this would become the first of many attempts for Apple to get the youths to listen to U2. And it just never stopped from there.

Patrick: Hey, Bono needs money, too! Though that U2 Special Edition iPod did look badass.

#1: Think different (1997-2002)

Patrick: Wow, this is so touching and inspiring. I love the black-and-white footage and Richard Dreyfus' narration.

Lynn: This is one is my favorite Apple campaign. It's sentimental, short and the copy is memorable. It makes Apple users feel what they're supposed to feel -- different and probably better than others (ha).

Patrick: Yes, this set the tone for Apple's approach to how it presented itself to its customers moving forward to today.

Lynn: I know it made me feel like I was part of a cooler club since my parent's house had a Mac at that time. Not Muhammed Ali cool, but cooler than I could be (which is still not that cool).

Patrick: "Cynical Patrick" wonders though what Picasso and Martha Graham would think of being used to sell computers.

Lynn: It was a good thing then that Apple separated its products and these iconic people during the "Think Different" campaign. It didn't feel too smarmy. Even though, really, every ad is selling you something at the end of the day.

Honorable mentions:

Apple has had many ad campaigns over its history. Here are some honorable mentions:

  • Power (1995) -- This one stars George Clinton, but others in the campaign included Hunter S. Thompson, Spike Lee, Oliver Stone, Marlee Matlin and Dave Stewart.
  • PowerBooks (2003) -- Verne Troyer (Mini Me) & Yao Ming using Apple PowerBooks on a plane -- Jeff Goldblum narrates.
  • Hello (2007) -- This introduced the iPhone to the world.
  • MacBook Air (2008) -- It's all about a thin computer and an interoffice envelope.
  • Slow Roll (2014) -- A series of short narratives about how people use the iPad.

We are just two people, but we'd like to hear your thoughts, too. All respectable debates are welcome in the comments.