Should We Be Worried About Apple's Use of Celebrity?

Celebrity Ads May Signal That the Company Has Lost Its Famous Focus on Product

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I've loved watching John Malkovich since I first saw him on Broadway in the early 1980s, but the last place he belongs is in an Apple commercial. At risk of drawing a profoundly big conclusion from what might be a stupid little advertising decision, his spot -- and those involving other celebs in the recent campaign for iPhone's Siri -- could be an indication that Apple has lost sight of its brand.

You've likely seen the campaign. Samuel L. Jackson uses Siri to help him prepare dinner. Zoey Deschanel dances around in her apartment with it, and Malkovich sits sunk in an armchair and asks Siri about the meaning of life, among other musings. This stuff is so awful coming from Apple because the brand was always about products, first and foremost.

Lots of marketers have never understood the causality of Apple's strategy. Desktop publishing was the only reason the company survived during its dark decade at the end of the last century; it's what made Macs cool for people to use vs. the machines that cool people used. iMac was a revolution in design and, by extension, utility, making the "Think Different" campaign a description of how Apple and its customers viewed their machines, and not some artificial attribute it wanted to attach to its brand. Ditto for the "I'm a Mac" campaign that followed, which made no brand associations or promises that didn't arise from the well-known functionality of its computers.

iPods changed the music industry because iTunes made it easy to put songs on them, not due to any brilliance of marketing (those early iPod ads featuring various silhouettes rocking with white earbuds were all about product). Every tablet computer today looks like an iPad because Apple designed the category, so all it does is feature the products front and center in most of its ads. The human presence in iPhone ads up to now was limited to close-ups of hands holding or interacting with the device.

Marketers mistakenly confused Steve Jobs' celebrity for that of Apple. The products were always the stars, and the "reality distortion field" that detractors saw in his speeches was simply a reflection of the fact that his products changed reality. It didn't matter that Apple devices weren't perfect or different enough to satisfy every tech geek with an opinion; the brand was built on making things that were easy and productive for most people to use. In this sense, Apple's brand was perhaps the most organic we've seen in a long time (sorry for the pun).

So now it gives us celebs? Hiring famous people is what Microsoft or Acura do when they get Jerry Seinfeld to try to make their brands funny. It's what packaged goods brands do when they can't think of anything better to talk about. So actress Molly Shannon hoards hotel shampoo bottles in a commercial for Expedia, and I just saw David Beckham in a spot for Burger King. I know Apple used actor Peter Coyote for voiceovers, and I'm sure I've missed others ("Think Different" featured famous people, come to think of it), but could the bigger picture be that the move to celebs in its ads hints that Apple has entered a period of product lull?

The intelligent voice controller Siri is cool in a toy sort of way, but it's a far cry from being the breakthrough I/O it may well someday become. Overall, the latest iPhone wasn't a breakthrough upgrade like its predecessors. The iCloud service is still a muddle, and many of us miss the imperfections of a better-understood MobileMe. The new iPad gave us a second camera and a screen that improved on a screen that was already wonderful on the iPad2. Rumors that Apple TV is coming next scare the daylights out of me, as its current TV gizmo has been among its weakest, and the space is already awash with innovation, unlike music services or e-publishing when it first encountered them.

I bet it's tough to look at a marketplace where every phone and tablet looks like yours and then come up with what'll be next and different. But that was always what Apple did, never being first, necessarily, but always being better in a functional way that worked for lots of people. Its brand was all about its gizmos, and it's why its advertising and marketing was almost exclusively product-centric. Samuel L. Jackson is cool, Zoey Deschanel is cute, and John Malkovich is menacingly odd. But Apple products were always cooler and sexier and did better things than those celebs do.

Should we be worried, or is this just a bad advertising campaign?

JONATHAN SALEM BASKIN is president of Baskin Associates, a marketing-decisions consultancy, and author of the just published "Tell The Truth." You can follow him on Twitter: @jonathansalem.
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