During the NFL playoffs on Sunday, Apple debuted a lush, cinematic commercial for the new iPad Air that, on aesthetic grounds alone, is a triumph. A rapturous montage of iPad users the world over, it borrows liberally from Terrence Malick—both his woozy camerawork and, more literally, the dizzying strings that scored his most recent film, 2012's To the Wonder. But the ad's emotional purpose is provided by Robin Williams in a voiceover from his role as teacher John Keating in Dead Poets Society, in which he channels Whitman in a speech to his teenage students: "'That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse,'" Williams says. "What will your verse be?"
It’s a quixotic question to pose to Americans in an uncertain economy where good jobs are hard to find. But it’s also one that Apple might ask of itself, given its ads of late, an artistically ho-hum period for a marketer once considered industry leading (exhibit A: the widely panned “Genius Bar” ads of 2012). From the now-legendary 1984 spot, with its Big Brother dystopia, to its 1990s mishmash of the “crazy ones” who dared to "think different," Apple has long branded itself as the cool, free-thinking alternative to the tech lemmings populating mass culture: Justin Long’s hipster Mac to John Hodgeman’s square PC. The problem, of course, is that Apple is the establishment now.
Enter “Your Verse.” Now that consumers are comfortable with computing on smartphones and tablets, Apple can dispense with the utilitarian ads that characterize most product introductions, like the ones that once smugly informed us that “there’s an app for that.” Much like Apple's earliest ads, “Your Verse” isn't selling a product so much as a lifestyle—a better way of living—but on a deeper level it reflects America's anxiety amidst a sluggish, jobless recovery. And that, rather than Microsoft, is the real threat to Apple’s continued domination. People who are worried about paying next month's rent or mortgage tend to pass on, say, the latest iPhone installment.
So how to sell what’s basically just a slightly thinner, lighter version of the iPad? With a spirited defense of the arts and humanities! “We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute," Williams lectures in the voiceover. "We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion.” He continues: “Medicine, law, business, engineering—these are noble pursuits, and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love—these are what we stay alive for.”
In the context of the privileged boys prep school in Dead Poets Society, such rhapsodizing is a romantic and affordable indulgence: cultivating bohemian fantasies for the kids who will inevitably grow up to become Masters of the Universe. When spoken to a nation still reeling from the Great Recession and, at its more desperate margins, seeing its unemployment insurance and food stamps savaged, those fantasies can seem downright cruel. (They're also a bit odd coming from a business that values engineering above all else.)
Last year, amid revelations about labor abuses at its Foxconn factories, Apple ginned up its “Designed by Apple in California” slogan—a chipper way of declaring, “No sweatshops here!” But Americans are still uneasy about technology’s role in worker productivity, global supply chains, and outsourced employment, and whether Silicon Valley, on balance, giveth or taketh away in this brave new economy. Now, with “Your Verse,” Apple is telling the American people that jobs are important, but they're not everything in life.
The winners on display in "Your Verse" are as much icons of avocation as they are of vocation. There are a sprinkling of STEM-field professionals and students doing things that can actually be counted on to earn a stable living, but it’s mostly Kabuki elegance, punk-rock fervor, and hockey ballet—people pursuing their passions, in other words. The saddest vignette involves a parking-lot attendant tapping out a screenplay on his graveyard shift. Does his “verse” pay the bills? How many aspirants can the “creative class” afford? Should this attendant have pursued medicine or engineering after all?
Few would dispute the premise of Williams’ misty meditation. Poetry, beauty, romance, and love are indeed some of the ineffable properties that make life worth living (though poetry is running a distant fourth in America today). Apple has crafted a moving celebration of that ideal, with the unspoken caveat that such self-actualization is available only to those financially secure enough to afford an iPad Air. The gadget starts at $500, a fact you won't find in "Your Verse"—Apple is savvy enough to avoid that insult. So this is how it sells creativity when actual job “creators” are in short supply: with a song of myself, and my tablet.
Michael Serazio is an assistant professor of communication at Fairfield University and the author of Your Ad Here: The Cool Sell of Guerrilla Marketing.