By Harry McCracken | Monday, August 11, 2008 at 10:15 am
Two things are pretty much undeniable about Apple ads:
1) When discussing technical specifications, the company likes to make bold claims, and…
2) It doesn’t like to use footnotes, qualifiers, or disclaimers to get around the fact that virtually no claim you can make about a technology product is equally true in all circumstances.
That’s how you get a commercial like this iPhone spot (titled “Unslow”), which shows someone zipping around the Web on an iPhone more quickly than I’ve ever been able to in real life, and which ends with the tagline: “The new iPhone 3G: The Internet–you guessed it–twice as fast.”
If I’d tried to recreate that 30-second ad with my iPhone 3G during my trip to Las Vegas this weekend, it might have been a three-minute ad…even though I was on 3G at the time. on
A bit of type at the end of the ad does say that 3G isn’t available in all areas. But an iPhone 3G ad that aimed to set consumers’ expectations realistically would have pointed out that there are entire states–ten of ‘em–in which the iPhone 3G can’t get on a 3G network, and that even when you’re on a 3G network, it doesn’t guarantee that your experience will be “twice as fast.”
(You also gotta wonder how they filmed that ad: Is that really the AT&T network in action? Did they do multiple retakes and choose the fastest one? When they shot the ad, did they choose a studio which they knew to have superb AT&T 3G coverage? In what percentage of instances across the country will the New York Times load as quickly as it did in that ad?)
Apple’s whole “Twice as fast” iPhone 3G mantra (also prominent on its home page as I write this) seems incredibly dangerous for Apple: Since it’s not true when stated that definitively, it sets up consumers who don’t know a lot about 3G service for disappointment. Simply put, it’s selling people on something very specific which the iPhone 3G–as wonderful as it is in most respects that matter–doesn’t deliver.
While poking around YouTube looking for the above commercial, I first found the version that airs in Australia. For the most part, the Australian “Unslow” is a faithful remake of the U.S. edition. But there is one crucial difference, other than the cool Aussie voiceover:
Yup–in Australia, the iPhone 3G is merely “really fast.” And Apple’s home page for Australia doesn’t use the “Twice as fast. Half the price” tagline at all:
I don’t know for sure why this is. Maybe the math of Apple’s EDGE-vs-3G comparison for AT&T’s network doesn’t hold up even in a theoretically perfect scenario in other countries. (I can see why Apple wouldn’t want to use a slogan like “1.87 Times as Fast. .624 the Price.”) Perhaps Apple’s ad agencies in other countries are more cautious. Laws about what you can and can’t claim in an ad may vary.
Back in the U.S., Apple could have made its claim about the iPhone 3G’s speed entirely defensible if it had said something along the lines of “Up to twice as fast.” It chose not to. Like I said, this is a company that just doesn’t like footnotes, qualifiers, or disclaimers…even when they’d turn a claim from questionable to accurate.
Oddly enough, there’s another type of Apple ad, equally common, that avoids all these issues: The ones that are purely based on an emotional appeal, such as all those iPod ads that do absolutely nothing except show people enjoying music. Betcha you could make an iPhone commercial that was similar in spirit to those ones–and it might even sell just as many phones as “Unslow” will.
UPDATE: Jason Fried, who mused about “Unslow” before I did, pointed me to this video in which someone tried to recreate the ad on AT&T’s 3G network in Boston. The results are…well, unfast:
FURTHER FURTHER UPDATE: Close examination of the high-res versions of the U.S. and Australian editions of “Unslow” reveal a very similar, remarkably steady hand. If that is the same hand model in both spots–and I’m not saying it is–were the ads actually shot in the U.S. and Australia, using the cell networks the iPhone 3G is available on in those countries? Conspiracy theorists, elaborate!
FURTHER UPDATE: On Apple’s site, it accompanies the online version of “Unslow” with a disclaimer: “Based on 3G and EDGE testing. Actual speeds vary by site conditions. Based on iPhone 3G (8GB) and first-generation iPhone (8GB) purchases. Requires new 2-year AT&T rate plan, sold separately.” Not very Apple-ish, but shouldn’t it be in the commercial itself?