TIME Apple

Powerful: The Best Apple Ads Are Also Tutorials

Apple's latest iPhone commercial is another example of showing people how to do more with their phones.

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Apple’s haters like to say the company is only successful because of marketing. The masses are so entranced by Apple advertising that they’re blind to the existence of other, potentially better products.

But this line of thinking falls apart when you look at some of Apple’s best ads over the last few years. They aren’t deceptive (with some alleged exceptions), they aren’t flashy, and they don’t rely on gimmicks to get your attention. Maybe you could level those criticisms against Apple’s iconic “1984” campaign, or its “Get a Mac” campaign from the mid-aughts, but today Apple ads are plain and straightforward by comparison. There’s nothing particularly magical about them, and yet they work.

The newly-launched “Powerful” ad is a great example. For 90 seconds, only one thing happens: People use their iPhones. There’s no narration, no explanation and no interruption. It’s just people using their iPhones in ways that are interesting.

Sure, most of us use our smartphones for duller purposes: checking e-mail, looking at Instagram, posting something on Facebook, browsing the web. We’re not all musicians, artists, videographers or international explorers. In that sense, the ad is aspirational, like a beer commercial with beautiful people partying in lavish environments. But while the beer commercial rubs in your face what you could never have, the iPhone ad sends a different message: You can do all these interesting things. You just need to download a few good apps.

It’s no surprise that immediately after launching the ad, Apple put up a web page with links to the App Store for several of the featured apps. You just learned what you can do with the iPhone. Now do it.

This idea, of advertisement as tutorial, has been done by Apple before. Here’s an ad from 2012 that’s basically a demonstration of how to use the iPhone 5’s panoramic photo feature:

Apple’s iPhone 3GS ad campaign in 2009 coined the phrase “There’s an app for that,” again illustrating what users could do with their phones. It also included this quasi-tutorial on how to use copy and paste, then a new feature:

Even Apple’s first ads for Siri, which drew mixed reactions for relying on celebrities, served a rather basic purpose of showing what you could do with the virtual assistant:

Apple’s detractors might argue that other phones offer features and apps that are similar to the ones Apple advertises. But that’s beside the point. Tech enthusiasts (myself included) can often lose sight of how new and unfamiliar these devices can be to the average user. Many people are still learning to use their smartphones, the functions of which are not always second-nature. These users may not be inclined to go exploring for new tricks and features, so Apple’s ads are providing a little push.

And don’t think Apple is only aiming its ads at people who don’t own iPhones. The U.S. smartphone market is approaching saturation, which means most people are on their first, second or even third smartphones. And in the United States, roughly half of those people are using iPhones. Ads like “Powerful” are as much about showing iPhone users what they’ve got as they are about showing non-iPhone users what they’re missing.

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