Apple’s Soul-Crushing New Ad: Who Thought This Was a Good Idea?

Apple’s Soul-Crushing New Ad: Who Thought This Was a Good Idea?

It seems at first like a brilliant, if unsubtle, piece of dystopian satire: Countless symbols of human creativity — books, musical instruments, artworks, arcade games — crowded onto a platform and slowly, painfully, sadistically pancaked between the massive metal jaws of a machine. An upright piano splinters and cracks. Paint gushes like blood. With its bleak industrial aesthetic, the clip mirrors the look — but inverts the point — of one of the most famous advertisements in television history: Ridley Scott’s 1984 spot for Apple, in which a colorfully dressed female Olympian tosses a hammer into a screen and shatters the televised face of an Orwellian Big Brother, breaking his authoritarian grip on society. With the release of the new Macintosh computer, the ad concluded, “You’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984,” suggesting that personal computing was a force of liberation. 

One almost expects the new clip, titled “Crush,” to end with a rueful answer to that slogan, one that reflects a widespread anxiety about the global advance of fascism and the inexorable rise of AI: “2024 will be like 1984.” 

But “Crush,” in an incomprehensible twist of irony, is actually an advertisement for Apple, endorsed enthusiastically by CEO Tim Cook on Twitter. All of that destruction, it seems, is meant to promote the release of … a new, extra thin iPad, revealed when the clamps open back up. You can imagine the pitch: “All of human creation compressed into one impossibly sleek tablet.” But the end result feels more like: “All of human creation sacrificed for a lifeless gadget.” 

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“Crush,” a controversial ad for Apple’s new iPad Pro.

Judging by the Twitter comments, the response has been almost universally negative, with people seeking to know, above all, who thought this was a good idea? Indeed, at a time of bipartisan skepticism about tech and its destructive effects on society — and, in the case of generative AI, its callous disregard for human creators — it seems designed to offend as many people as possible. (Full disclosure: I am the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against OpenAI and Microsoft, on the grounds of copyright infringement.)

The first casualty is a gleaming trumpet, propped heroically on its bell at the top of the pile. For anyone who plays the trumpet, as I do, the mere sight of a horn is joyful, summoning memories of music performed and suggesting melodies yet to be played. It is pure artistic potential. So when I saw the brass pistons and tubing start twisting and collapsing between the clamps, I felt a kind of sympathetic pain. The variety of creative objects that succumb to the inexorable crushing ensures that a maximum number of people will experience similar pangs of loss. 

The only thing that could have made it more dystopian would have been if actual human beings had been playing the instruments, reading the books, or wielding the paintbrushes. The geniuses behind “Crush” nevertheless made sure to include anthropomorphic figures — a drawing manikin, a clay bust, an Angry Bird, smiley faces whose eyes pop out under the strain — to make the slow destruction feel more like cruelty, and the final clampdown more like the eradication of life. 

The ad coincided with Cook’s announcement on May 7 of the new iPad Pro, in a pre-recorded video live streamed from the company’s headquarters in Cupertino. Apple’s chief executive called Tuesday “the biggest day for iPad since its introduction,” in 20TK. In addition to its thinness, Cook touted its new custom M4 processor, which he called an “outrageously powerful chip for AI.” If that announcement wasn’t enough to make artists fear for their job security and the very future of original human creation, the ad that accompanied it would make the threat, well, crushingly obvious. 

The announcement comes as Apple’s tablet sales have slumped. It also arrives at moment when the company’s image as the most benevolent, or perhaps least evil, of the Big Tech behemoths, has been called into question. Unlike Google, Facebook, TikTok, or Twitter, Apple could not be accused of algorithmically nurturing addiction, fraying the social fabric, spreading hate, or undermining democracy. But it could be — and has been — accused of monopolistic practices, culminating in a lawsuit from the Department of Justice last month. The depiction of artworks and creative tools being demolished in a cultural auto da fe reminiscent of book burnings might not be the best strategy for restoring the company’s tarnished reputation.

As with every time Apple missteps these days, people will wonder what Steve Jobs would have done. But we don’t have to wonder. The late founder left a clear record of what he thought in the ad campaigns he oversaw, which conveyed the story he wanted to tell about Apple. Ridley Scott’s $1.5 million masterpiece, which aired during the 1984 Super Bowl, was one such story. It showed humanity destroying a symbol of technological subjugation, not the other way around. But perhaps the more telling contrast is with the “Think Different” campaign of the late 90s, celebrating 20th century scientific and cultural luminaries for their unconventional ideas. What would those people think of “Crush”? Would Picasso celebrate the flattening of sculpture? Would Bob Dylan cheer for the smashing of a guitar and a turntable? Would Jim Henson and Kermit the Frog approve of pulverizing of marionettes? Would Miles Davis applaud the destruction of that trumpet?

Maybe Apple thinks different now. 

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