Dissecting Apple's 'Crush' ad controversy

By Ruby Derrick | 14 May 2024

Adland is uneasy about Apple’s Crush ad for its new iPad that’s sparked universal negativity. 

Perhaps, if the world was still in its pre-AI phase, then this ad wouldn’t have ruffled feathers in the way that it has, industry insiders believe.

The negative public reaction suggests Apple missed the mark, likely the result of how jarring this ad is, given the history of Apple’s brand positioning.

The seemingly mindless destruction of items symbolic of civilisation feels a bit "ick" for Sam Walters, GM of Australian advertising and product research specialist Cubery.

Perhaps that’s why the version in reverse is receiving much more positive feedback, he says.

“It completely spins the narrative on its head, building a sense of a much more positive message of ‘growth’ rather than destruction.

“But, anyway, let’s be honest, is it all a storm in a teacup?”

Consumer testing suggests it probably is, Walters says.

Cubery tested it with US viewers and generally, it was very much a middle of the road performer.

On the positive side, Walters says, those impactful visuals and style stood out as very distinctive – an original idea that was always like to capture attention.

But it terms of how much people enjoyed all that fanfare, likeability was more muted -  albeit due a level of polarisation – indicative of the debate people are having, Walters says.

“For many it did evoke feelings of excitement and amazement, but then in the other camp there’s feeling of frustration and even disgust from the crushing.

“Crucially, though, people just didn’t feel this screamed ‘Apple’. Sure, the sleek visuals are reminiscent of the brand, but amidst all the chaos and explosions, Apple and the iPad itself hardly shines nor takes the role of hero.

“As for the potential to compel people – how much of a job to be done’ is an even thinner iPad – when was the last time you picked one up and thought ‘Jeez, this is thick’?”

People are more familiar with its broader capabilities, Walters says – music, learning, entertainment – so fundamentally there was little highlighted that conveyed a meaningful advantage for Apple here. 

“Not the disaster the community is suggesting, but certainly given the budget and talent available it’s perhaps a disappointment for Apple.”

Viewing ‘Crush’ though an ad-centric lens, independent creative Adrian Elton felt that the fundamental idea was sufficiently clever and succinct, dramatising the key idea that the thinnest ever iPad packs in all of the tools of creativity like never before.

“Admittedly I wrestled a bit with the Sonny & Cher track (which I didn't know prior to this) though I can appreciate the desire to have music that contrasted dramatically and idiosyncratically with the industrial angle of the footage,” Elton says.

He also felt that the animation was just one rung shy of the realism that would have made it land as powerfully as it could have. 

Elton can only imagine that the slight cartoony-ness was an entirely intentional choice though as Apple don’t usually cut corners with their flagship campaigns. This of course is the most minor of aesthetic gripes.

“In retrospect though - I did find the slow-mo desecration of the musical instruments and metronome a little disquieting; but I was able to contextualise it within the framework of the overall idea so could suspend disbelief and enjoy the unfolding detail, all underscored by the fact that we know that self evidently, it isn't real.”

“That rather important qualifying fact can’t be said for all of the beautiful Fender Stratocasters and Gibson Les Pauls that have been smashed to smithereens and set alight by generations of hangry electric guitarists."

Even the Beatles destroyed a piano for the ‘Strawberry Fields’ film clip and Elton doesn't remember any protests about that. Though to be fair, the keyboard warrior class hadn’t yet arisen, he says.

“Of course, once I subsequently looked up from that first viewing, I couldn’t help but notice the Himalayan mountain range of hand-wringing op-eds and random punter slap-downs.

“Which underlines the fact that sometimes the ‘6’ when viewed from the other side of the room is indisputably a ‘9’.”

From the perspective of what AI platforms from MidJourney, to Sora, to Udio are going to likely mean for many soon to be under or unemployed artists and creatives, it really is a metaphor that truly delivers them crushing feels, Elton believes.

“And worth keeping in mind that those diminishing prospects might be further accelerated and intensified once Apple publicly throw their hat into the AI ring.”

Which makes Elton think that the tension point for Apple and the other big tech companies will be when the creatives who have championed them, can no longer afford their products, subscriptions and software because they’ve been squeezed out of the creative production economy. 

“Poetically at that point, it might be those titans who finally feel the crush, as the Sam Altmans and Elon Musks of the world enjoy one last slow dance, wilted roses between their teeth, as they negotiate their way across the smouldering remains of society."

RMIT University senior lecturer of marketing Amanda Spry says the Crush advertisement sits somewhere between two commonly used executions - demonstration and dramatisation. 

“Blending these two executions should see Apple benefit from the best of each – demonstration puts the iPad in a situation that shows off its best capabilities and features, and dramatisation does this in a staged way that tells a story where the iPad is the star. 

“Yet, the negative public reaction would suggest Apple missed the mark.”

One reason likely lies in how jarring this ad is, given the history of Apple’s brand positioning, Spry says.

“At the centre of the brand has always been humanity and creativity, and this has been conveyed to consumers through visually stunning advertising executions in the past.  

“Crush is a stark departure from the iconic ‘Here’s to the crazy ones’ and original iPod commercials.”

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