The Greatest Marketer of the Age

Steve Jobs demanded that his company build great products—and great advertising campaigns

Headshot of Tim Nudd

Steve Jobs made computers and music players and telephones and tablets. But mostly what he sold were two things—beauty and truth. As Apple’s core brand values, they were inseparable. His products looked better, and, he firmly believed, they were better. By being more beautiful, inside and out, they would improve your life. By being better than rival products, they would improve the world and move the culture forward. In this sense, good taste wasn’t a luxury, Jobs felt. It was a moral choice, particularly for the marketers who would shape technology’s future. If you sold an inferior product, you were a liar (if you were successful at it, a tyrant). If you bought it, you were a sucker.

Jobs’ merging of aesthetics and ethics, and his combative obsession with good and evil, would inform all of the company’s marketing on his watch. Aside from some notable failures, Apple products were often their own best marketing. But this was never enough. Jobs understood early on that he needed advertising to create an aura around them, and in 1980 he found a like-minded partner in Chiat/Day, the Los Angeles ad agency led by Jay Chiat and creative director Lee Clow. They would be partners through both of Jobs’ stints at Apple. Whether distilling the company’s ethos in grand, bold strokes like “1984” and “Think different,” reinventing the testimonial with “Switchers,” crafting the best-ever advertising comedy series with “Get a Mac,” or teasing the merchandise in spare, elegant product demos for the iPhone and iPad, their ad campaigns would become the envy of the industry.

The marketing didn’t always make a product a runaway success—Apple’s PC market share only recently broke the 10 percent mark, still well behind HP and Dell—but it relentlessly portrayed Apple as a force for good, a positioning that had a rebel’s edge when the company was the underdog. Jobs took a weak position in the market and made it seem like a badge of honor—a matter of exclusivity and, thus, coolness. Not everyone was equipped to see the future. You either got it, or you didn’t. You were with him, or against him. In the Ridley Scott-directed “1984,” the most famous commercial ever made—the ad to change all ads, particularly Super Bowl spots—you were either the heroine or the lobotomized slave. (Big Brother was IBM, though Apple would soon find an even greater villain in Microsoft.)

“1984” was game changing. But Jobs’ marketing insurrection wouldn’t hit full stride until his return in 1997 from his decade-long exile from Apple. He immediately reunited with Chiat/Day and unleashed “Think different,” a countercultural branding masterpiece that pushed a mind-set, not a product, and cast Apple as the endorser and enabler of misunderstood genius.

“Here’s to the crazy ones,” Richard Dreyfus intoned in the signature TV spot. “The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently . . . While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.” Images flickered by of Einstein and Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Picasso. Lurking off-screen, co-conspirator to these great minds, was Jobs. He was back, and he had another shot at changing the world himself.

It was a simple and shocking campaign and at the time seemed staggeringly arrogant. This wasn’t about how to use technology; it was about how to think. How to live. How to move the human race forward. And Jobs made the world’s great thinkers back him on it. All this from a company not that far removed from its Newton debacle of the mid-’90s and still years away from its iPod and iTunes boom.

In the years following, Jobs’ fight to convince people of his vision would take different forms—and different marketing styles. He continued to push his computer line in aggressive TV campaigns in the 2000s—first, Errol Morris’s “Switchers” ads, and then Phil Morrison’s four-year, 66-spot “Get a Mac” campaign. “Switchers,” which debuted in 2002, starred PC users who had switched to Macs, and introduced the brand’s soon-to-be-famous blank white set, an elegant extension of the products’ modern, minimalist style. Morris used his Interrotron—a device with a two-way mirror that allows the subject to look him in the eye and answer his questions while also looking directly into the camera—to extract some of the most intimate advertising testimonials ever put to film.

“Get a Mac,” which launched in 2006 with John Hodgman and Justin Long as the bumbling PC and the cool, unflappable Mac, was quite simply the best creative TV work of the decade. Turning the machines into people embodied Jobs’ notion of technology as a humanizing force. Making it a comedy act allowed him to blast the competition with possibly the most lovable attack ads in history. (See all 66 “Get a Mac” ads here.)

Jobs, though, had turned to another obsession by the early 2000s: music. The iPod and iTunes, introduced in 2001, would change his company’s fortunes forever and put him in a completely foreign marketing position—that of overwhelming market leader. For once, Apple didn’t have to fight. It responded by exuberantly and single-mindedly celebrating the beauty and simplicity of its creation—in explosions of color across a campaign that amounted to a spiritual release from the gloom of “1984.” (Apple even remixed that old spot, on the occasion of its 20th anniversary in 2004, to outfit the heroine with an iPod, along with the product’s newly iconic white earbuds.) Fittingly, the iPod and iTunes TV spots also allowed Apple thrillingly to play DJ and craft a musical playlist for the culture.

After the iPod came the iPhone, in 2007, another revolutionary product that would be a megahit in the market—and for Jobs, another creative canvas in advertising. The first teaser spot, on the Oscars, stitched together movie and TV scenes with famous actors and actresses on the phone—the first all-star cast since “Think different.” The campaign then dove into the most elementary of advertising messaging: the product demonstration. (The gadget offered an experience so new, it needed the oldest marketing trick in the book to promote it.) For Jobs, it was a return to his roots. A hand holds the phone and shows you how to use it—much as Jobs proudly showed off the Macintosh in his very first product demo, to a packed auditorium at Apple’s shareholder meeting, in January 1984.

Jobs would have one more major product to introduce—the iPad, in 2010. The early spots were a simple mix of iPod and iPhone ad themes, with driving music and quick-cut hand swipes of the device. But with the iPad 2, released this past March, Jobs—aware his time was running out—gave the messaging a much more cosmic aspect.

“This is what we believe,” said the voiceover on the launch spot, alongside a quiet piano score, as a finger reached out to touch the glowing plane of the device in profile—an almost sacred-looking image. “Technology alone is not enough. Faster. Thinner. Lighter. Those are all good things. But when technology gets out of the way, everything becomes more delightful, even magical. That’s when you leap forward. That’s when you end up with something like this.”

More ads would follow through the spring and summer, each one a gentle meditation on the dance between humans and their machines. But those 46 words of ad copy would serve as Jobs’ career epitaph, both as product developer and marketer. Never before had he so completely and explicitly named the philosophy behind his life’s work. “Something like this” wasn’t just the iPad 2. It was everything Apple ever made. It was the products that made you better and made the world better. It was advertising that made you believe (and want to buy). It was the convergence of beauty and truth.

It was Steve Jobs’ gift to Apple, and to the world.

@nudd Tim Nudd is a former creative editor of Adweek.