The Groening ads are a reminder of how far Apple has come as a design-based brand. But that evolution only really began in 1997, with the "Think Different" campaign that placed style above product benefits and claims of technical superiority. Prior to that, Apple's advertising was a stylistic mess, a grab-bag of random ideas, none of which gained the kind of pop-cultural traction that the company has today.
Apple was founded in 1976 and spent its first 20 years plainly uninterested in the power of style and design as a branding platform. (Click to enlarge this wonderful image at right of MacWorld's first edition, featuring Jobs in a tan suit with a banker's chalk-stripe.) It's only in the last 14 years -- and since the iPod was launched in 2001 in particular -- that so much of Apple's brand has been tied up in the sleek, spare, uncluttered designs we're familiar with today.
Here's a tour through Apple's ad archive, courtesy of MacMothership, showing how an obscure computer parts supplier came to rule the advertising universe.
1976: "Dealer inquiries invited"
That was the closest thing to a tagline on Apple's first ever ad from 1976 (click to enlarge). Note the positioning: "4K bytes of RAM"! Delightfully amateurish stuff -- but then this ad was not targeted at consumers and establishing product credentials was probably Job No. 1 at the time. Note the original, horrible, Apple logo featuring a woodcut of Isaac Newton sitting under an apple tree.
1977: Apple gets a typeface
In an early marketing decision that would affect the company for the next 20 years, Apple saddled itself with the Apple Garamond typeface and the rainbow Apple logo -- two key style elements that were only dismissed in the late 1990s.
1979: The Garden of Eden
Easily one of Apple's laugh-out-loud worst ads. Once you've gotten past the cringeworthy graphic, check out the competition's rules: Tell the company what you do with your Apple "in a thousand words or less." A thousand words! It's like they never met an American consumer before.
1981: Dick Cavett and an "average American homemaker"
Charmingly dated but, in its way, this isn't a terrible ad. Talk show host Cavett plays a chauvinist pig asking the little wifey how she likes using her Apple to manage the household budget. Turns out she's trading gold futures. As Cavett deadpans his way through the script, she delivers the payoff: "I also own a small steel mill." Still stands up -- but Apple is five years old and there is still no sense of style about the brand.
1983: "Be the Apple of everyone's eye"
If you own one of these old shirts, hold onto it or sell it on eBay. Hipsters will make you rich. Once you've stopped chuckling, bear in mind that if Apple was publishing a lifestyle products catalog it meant the company was big enough to publish a lifestyle products catalog. It's reached a point where brand and style are becoming increasingly important -- although that's not obvious from the lack of coolness displayed here.
This Super Bowl commercial from ad agency TBWA/Chiat/Day is regarded as a key creative moment for Apple and Super Bowl advertising generally. It borrows from George Orwell's dystopian tale to suggest that Apple users could smash the PC oligarchy with the new Macintosh computer. While the product launch was significant, the ad itself, frankly, hasn't stood the test of time. It comes across as yet one more of Apple's random creative forays that didn't go anywhere in terms of building the brand's style.
1989: Life in Hell
Another off-brand excursion, this time with Matt Groening recasting characters from his "Life in Hell" strip, which used to appear in the back of alternative weeklies before The Simpsons consumed his life. The artwork was for a brochure targeting students who might buy computers. Interesting, but another creative cul-de-sac.
1996: Navratilova and Art Monk
These PowerBook ads were ubiquitous in the late 1990s, and they display everything that Apple got wrong in the previous 20 years: Enormous amounts of text, lots of hard-sell persuasion, and no sense that the product itself is cool or interesting. Garamond and the rainbow logo are still here, unaltered in two decades. We're supposed to be interested in PowerBooks because these celebrities have them. Zzzz. And yet, Apple is at a turning point ...
1997: "Think Different"
The devices themselves disappear from the ads in favor of gorgeous photography. This was the moment when style suddenly became important in Apple's ads. Ironically, Apple had to lose its products in order to gain its identity.
1998: "Chic. Not geek"
This ad could run today. It is the first Apple ad of the modern era. The product is the hero, displayed as the only living being in an otherwise featureless white universe. The technical aspects are ignored in favor of the styling. The iMac campaign recast Apple as a design brand. Everything follows from here.
2006: "Mac vs. PC"
The battle of wits between John Hodgman and Justin Long lasted three years, until 2009. When it was retired, some viewers were grief-stricken -- it was the first genuinely entertaining Apple campaign, ever. ("1984" was entertaining but it was a single ad shown just once.) Stylistically, the ad builds on Apple's trade-dress relaunch from the 1998 iMac campaign, backed by the featureless white universe. Although the Apple product mix was moving away from computers to mobile devices anyway, some still suspect the campaign was axed because Hodgman's nerdy PC was a lot more endearing than Long's smug hipster.
2007: The iPhone era
The genius of Apple's attention to design is the fact that the company no longer releases products that require instructions. They are so well designed that consumers can figure them out intuitively without reaching for the manual.
As the product interfaces have gotten simpler, so has the advertising. One feeds the other. The product is its own marketing, and vice versa. Apple has achieved the kind of brand-product synergy that most companies only dream about.
Of course, the minimalist look is a trend of its own. At some point, it will fall out of style, like a rainbow logo or a serif font. Apple's response to that, on both a product design and brand marketing level, will be fascinating to watch.