Why Apple’s iPad Ad Actually Bombed

Photo by pratik prasad on Unsplash

This week, Apple launched it’s latest iteration of the iPad with an emphasis on it being well, thinner than ever before. A common theme of Apple products for a few years now. In the subsequent ad and the launch promotion, the core video garnered a huge amount of criticism. So much so that Apple has quickly apologized.

What went wrong? Why did the ad fail? Let’s explore from a sociocultural perspective. It’s worth doing because of where digital technologies “sit” in society today.

As a digital anthropologist, I am constantly watching how cultures and societies view and feel about digital technologies. I work with a lot of technology companies to help them understand how societies and cultures feel about, adopt and engage with technologies. And bring them to market. I’ve been doing this for over twenty years.

In it’s simplest form, the video would be seen as fun and creatively interesting. The concept being that now, anyone with any sort of creative idea across any form of the aesthetic elements of culture, art, music, literature, fashion, architecture, could do it all in one place. Makes sense. Below is a YouTube clip of the ad. Worth viewing for context if you’ve not already seen it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ntjkwIXWtrc

So why did the ad garner such visceral reaction from celebrities and average folks, and we might say this ad has become as impactful as Apple’s 1984 ad, but in the completely opposite way.

The original 1984 ad by Apple came at a time when digital technologies were fairly new in society. Personal computers then were quite expensive. The internet wasn’t a household thing. Smartphones? Nope. The earliest smartphone was a decade away and even then it wasn’t really “smart”. Society was excited, interested. Computers were becoming accessible, filled with promise and opportunity.

Society was just starting to get digitally connected then. The idea of sharing ideas, of being able to express ourselves creatively in new and interesting ways was fascinating. Apple’s 1984 TV ad was perfect for this time in society and culture. The promise of digital technologies, the expectations, were vibrant and positive. Their later “Think Different” campaign built on this idea.

Apple’s latest ad tried, but failed, to pay some sort of homage to that time. The intent was honest. The idea was honest, to express that now, the iPad would enable even more creative expression in even more incredible ways. And frankly, it does. It really is a brilliant technological device. So what happened?

It is 30 years later and today, society isn’t as amused, enamoured or feeling as inspired with computing like it once was. The promises of social media leading to a time of humans connecting and coming together in whimsical, wonderful ways hasn’t fully come true.

Knowledge workers feel overwhelmed, exhausted and feel they can’t keep up. The experience of the internet, of news sites, whether on mobile or desktop has become one where we must navigate endless ads and the text of a story is less than all the ads thrust upon us. We are surveilled, sliced and diced by data analysts. Ads aren’t creative anymore, they’re designed to get clicks. Consumers are moved through a funnel and they don’t like being that compressed and squeezed.

Yet the new iPad and many other technologies do give us new and exciting ways to express ourselves unlike ever before in human history. To share and engage, to create. It is exciting. But we are overwhelmed and society is frustrated. We are so exhausted we can’t see the opportunity. Our dopamine has been hijacked and we’re left with the hangover.

Then of course, there’s Artificial Intelligence, specifically Generative AI (GAI) like ChatGPT, Claude, Midjourney and others. Society is left to struggle with what this all means. Not just for jobs, but for human creativity. The AI giants tell us our jobs are doomed, so is creativity and we should just submit. But humans never do. That’s a message few societies like or ever accept.

Apple’s iPad ad brought it all home. In just a few seconds an ad that was intended to show how a technology could give us even more ways to express our creativity instead expressed how much of society feels about technology companies today; being crushed with no choices.

People don’t want a toothbrush with AI, but Oral-B thinks we do. No one thinks a toothbrush with AI is going to really make our teeth that much cleaner. Samsung baked AI into an oven. LG put AI in a fridge. They are all missing how culture actually works. But they do know that putting AI into a press release does jack the share price.

Apple has long and lovingly fostered a deep and meaningful relationship with the creative industries. It does want to maintain that, to grow it. To make it better and these latest tools do that. It’s just the execution that fell flat.

Society doesn’t want more AI in anything, it wants less. Today, culture feels threatened by AI. It feels threatened by the hint of anything that will take it’s ability to create, imagine and express away. It is overwhelmed by technology. Constant notifications, software updates and new buttons. It’s not a technology backlash, it’s technology exhaustion. And perhaps more so, disillusionment. The tech companies made promises they have not kept.

Cultures need time and space to figure out how they want to adopt and adapt technologies. To understand the impacts on customs, norms and traditions. When this is blocked or taken away, culture will react. With anger, frustration and in a consumer oriented society, by not buying products and services.

Apple had no bad intent with it’s ad, quite the opposite. But it failed to read the cultural room, the social zeitgeist if you will. To understand, or see where culture is today, how it feels about a lot of current technologies. Given what I do know about Apple, the people that work there and what Apple does want to accomplish, the results of the ad will ripple through the company in profound ways.

Apples’ ad was well intended, but culturally tone deaf. The question then becomes, will other tech giants take note? Will they be willing, like Apple likely will, to return to customer value over shareholder value?

Apple is not, nor is any tech company, perfect, but it does make quality products that do deliver value. I have a few Apple products in my home that are between 12 and 15 years old and still work and give me and my family value. I’m not absolving them of their misstep, but Apple does try more than most.

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Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Digital / Cultural Anthropologist | I'm in WIRED, Forbes, National Geographic etc. | I help companies create & launch human-centric technology products.