Adgadget: Apple - flattered and photocopied

We're pleased to introduce a new column today, Adgadget, a periodic editorial by Ariel Waldman about the advertising behind consumer technology:

Functioning to flatter, Apple's marketing department continues to imitate their inspiration. While a bit lack-luster, Apple's recent commercial for the up and coming iPhone is a far cry from the originality of the product itself. As some may have seen, it was soon found that the iPhone commercial that had originally aired during the Oscars was a cut and dry ripoff of a film that had come out more than a decade earlier. While seemingly scandalous, this incident was no coincidence. Apple had approached the filmmaker earlier for permission to use the concept; no stranger to being turned down -- and similarly to the battle with Cisco over the very name of the product -- Apple went ahead and used it anyway.

This time the muse happens to be experimental artist / musician Christian Marclay, who in 1995 produced Telephones, an abstract film of absurd and fragmented conversations cut up from phone scenes in movies. The film focused to comment on the relationship between sound and image by way of video; intrigued by the phone-movie mashup, Apple approached Marclay to use his work. Marclay, of course, refused Apple's advances, but Apple took advantage anyway. Since asking the source had short-circuited, Apple instead took to using extremely similar footage, making the iPhone commercial nothing short of a complete color copy of Telephones.

Reminiscent of the earlier Intel chip commercial outcry that clearly ripped out scenes from Postal Service's "Such Great Heights" music video, content confiscation is nothing new to Apple. There was also the iPod incident in 2005, where blogs everywhere threw up screen grabs and expressed shock over the extreme similarity between the then recent Eminem iPod commercial and a Lugz commercial from 4 years before. But it wasn't always this way.

Recall, if you will, the golden age of Apple ads: the 1980s and 90s, where men were men, and advertisements were forthright about their artistic influences. Starting with the adaptation of George Orwell's 1984, Apple at least had the decency to list its inspiration in the liner notes. Its legendary Think Different campaign in the 1990s, by TBWA \ Chiat \ Day, nobly paid tribute to those who supposedly affected Apple's image, even in light of grammatical shortcomings. Despite the tributes, Apple's advertising was criticized even then for incorporating figures that wouldn't approve of their products. Though long retired, Think Different may still to be embedded into the hearts and minds of advertisers, as Apple certainly continues to drum to a different beat: sans (artist) approval.

Adding method to the madness, there is a strategy lurking within the shallow depths of our flat screens. While the iPhone commercial may have made Microsoft and Oscar viewers ask when exactly the "Wow" was supposed to start, it at least accomplished a few tasks error-free. Similar to many viral videos, the iPhone commercial used an Easter egg-like technique to create conversation. With a plethora of film contexts during a DVR-deflated event like the Oscars, the film clips gained attention and contextual chatter amongst not the nerdiest of crowds.

Only hearing of the commercial from a friend after the Oscars broadcast, Marclay, the misused muse, stated, "The way they dealt with the whole thing is pretty sleazy". Point taken to a company that prides itself on design not being how it looks and feels like, but how it works (to quote Steve). In the end, the director decided not to sue. "This culture's so much about suing each other that if we want to have anything that's more of an open exchange of ideas, one has to stop this mentality," said Marclay. "I'm just honored that they thought my work was interesting enough that they felt they could just rip it off."

Ripping out references and prodding pop culture, advertising has always been influenced by mainstream cultural contexts to leverage products. While technology shoves forward, adverts hug familiar fads and new niches in hopes of tapping into relevant conversations. There is something to be said for actively making consumers dig through old archives to be the first ones to call it. Though passive media like television commercials may not allow for a more organic approach to conversation, at least it continues to attempt it.

Ariel Waldman is a Digital Insights Analyst for applied technologies at VML, an interactive agency. Her blog can be read at Views expressed in Adgadget are her own.