Crushing advertising - Apple’s iPad Pro commercial - Spontaneity Shop

Crushing advertising – Apple’s iPad Pro commercial

11 May 2024
Alex MacLaren

When I was a tiny child I would go to sleep to the sound of musicians downstairs, led by my mum. She plays the French horn, a difficult instrument to master, and as well as teaching she would play with all the local orchestras, from amateur musical comedy society bands to the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. The room below my bedroom was littered with instruments, from school recorders to battered trumpets (on which she would be invited to play the Last Post at Remembrance Sunday services), and on the mantelpiece stood a mysterious wooden pyramid with an upside-down pendulum on the front, connected to a clockwork mechanism inside. All serious musicians had one, until they were replaced by cheaper digital clickers: it is a metronome. When the score gives a tempo such as ‘andante’, that indicates a generally accepted number of beats per minute (between 76 and 108, if you are interested), and the wind-up metronome clicked that rhythm steadily while you practiced. I haven’t seen one for some time, but this morning I did: alongside a gleaming trumpet, a piano and many other lovely items of creative play, it is crushed and shattered to smithereens in Apple’s extraordinary new advert for their iPad Pro.

The ad won’t horrify everyone like it horrified me; I have already come across cloth-eared contrarian defences of it, thoughtful explanations of what they had in mind (the compression of a million creative tools into one single wafer-thin device, how awesome!), internet scholars connecting it to Ridley Scott’s famous ‘1984’ ad for Apple (which employs the metaphor of destruction for totally different purposes), and the usual suggestions that it was meant to get our attention therefore it has been very successful. But it has attracted broadly negative responses, and to insist that something so nauseating must be deliberate (as some surely will) strikes me not as humble openness but cringing to a fantasy of genius. It is a real misstep.

So what has gone wrong? Details will certainly emerge, as this has now entered the news cycle. Here are my hunches :

·      In our creativity workshops we show how failure anxiety inhibits your imagination, and so fear of judgment during a creative process means we can be secretive in an anxious rather than excited fashion, and we don’t show our work to others ‘before it is ready’. Sometimes ‘ready’ is when it is too late – we have no time left to make the fundamental changes that are necessary for it do what we intend.

·      Feedback within professional teams is an emotional business. A colleague may feel very disappointed in your work but they won’t tell you like a disinterested consumer would, because they have to work with you tomorrow, and they don’t want to be the bearer of bad news. And the nearer you get to the deadline, the more difficult it will be to change course.

·      Being asked for feedback in a high stakes moment makes that feedback less intuitive and authentic – because later our opinion can be judged on how smart/wisely informed/useful it was, so we try to give a ‘right answer’. Imagine being asked for your response with a gun to your head: ‘being wrong’ about something feels no less embarrassing if you are on millions of dollars a year. So the pressure to cleave to a predicted consensus at Apple’s level must be like a black hole, gravitationally speaking.

I’m also struck by my visceral reaction – it feels almost personal, and I can’t pretend to be neutral about the technology that is changing the way we create and relate. The ‘multi-tool’ element of digital devices is so settled in 2024 that we take that feature for granted, and instead these days we are mainly concerned with the bugs. Yes, a Kindle can contain a whole library, but it is not better than a physical library; the distractions and option paralysis of smartphones and tablets can make creative pursuits harder rather than easier; the sound a trumpet makes is perhaps very limited in comparison to an electronic synthesizer, but the limits of the instrument push the creative challenge back onto the artist, and create Miles Davis.

You don’t need to be a globally famous performer to understand this. When you are doing something perfectly everyday at work like designing a workshop plan, putting together a sales pitch or coming up with ideas for a firm’s webpage, you need to focus and shed distraction, iterate endlessly until you are proud of the final piece, and own what emerges at the end of the process as yours. So the tools we use matter, and though ‘a bad workman blames his tools’ I notice that artists take care of theirs, whether it is a violinist with her bow or a cook with his filleting knife.  The narrow, disciplined use of those tools is accepted, and even loved. If you crush what we love, we won’t be happy!

So if you are feeling despondent with a piece of your own work, take heart. The team that made this film won’t be fired never to work again – in fact I predict for them lessons and laughter, and a story for the ages. To see a corporation of Apple’s power and scale get something like this so very wrong is a very healthy reminder of William Goldman’s famous adage, speaking of the movie business but with apparently very wide applications: “Nobody Knows Anything”.

UPDATE 10/0524 hours in, Apple have apologised and will not be showing ‘Crush’ on TV.

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