A Brief Reverse-Chronological YouTube History of Apple

Thirty years of computers and gadgets from Cupertino, one commercial at a time.

By  |  Thursday, August 14, 2008 at 1:40 am

The history of Apple is so long and interesting that some amazingly weighty tomes have been written about it. But I don’t think you need to pore over hundreds of pages to get the gist of the company’s journey. Actually, more than with any other computer company, its advertising tells much of the story. And thanks to YouTube, it’s all a few clicks away, and watching it is downright addictive.

I started to put together this video timeline starting in the 1970s and working my way forward to the present day. Then I realized that it’s more fun–and much bloggier–to begin with current commercials and travel backwards in time. Join me, won’t you?

iPhone (2008): If you’re discussing Apple ads in 2008, you gotta begin with an iPhone one. Here’s “Unslow,” which I’ve already written about in excessive detail.

MacBook Pro (2007): I have mixed feelings about the “Get a Mac” campaign–the best ones are very funny, and John Hodgman is a gem. But sometimes their portrait of the PC–as a machine that’s mostly good at spreadsheets–feels like it hasn’t been updated since, oh, 1992 or thereabouts. I do, however, confess that I was tickled to no end when PC called my former employer, PC World, to complain about one of our articles. (Fun fact: A second ad that mentioned PCW was made at the same time, but shown on network TV only one evening before Apple decided to kill it–I’ve never seen it.)

iPod Touch (2007): Gazillions of Apple fans have uploaded homemade ads to YouTube. Nick Haley is the only one whose creation went on to become a real Apple ad. This is Nick’s version, but Apple’s is nearly¬† identical.

iPod Nano (2007): With its use of multiple Nanos in different colors, this ad for the current-generation Nano feels like it’s practically an explicit homage to ads for the multicolored original iMacs. Music by Feist–not to be confused with Ellen Feiss.

iPod (2005): Apple pulled its iPod ad with Eminem from the airwaves almost instantly–maybe because footwear manufacturer Lugz complained that it was eerily similar to a commercial it had released in 2002. Here’s a mashup that a YouTube user spliced together, mixing bits and pieces of both ads almost seamlessly.

PowerBooks (2003): This ad for Apple’s portables remains entertaining, but mostly, it makes me nostalgic for the 12-inch PowerBook, a computer I thoroughly enjoyed owning. If Apple made something comparable today with an Intel chip inside, I’d buy it in a heartbeat.

“Desklamp” iMac (2002): I never owned one (or, come to think of it, any desktop Mac), but I loved the design of the second-generation iMac. It had a sense of humor, and I can’t think of another computer, Apple or otherwise, that I’d say that about. Apparently, though, it didn’t sell all that well, panache and clever ads notwithstanding.

Switch (2002): When this ad campaign premiered, trying to convince the teeming masses to dump their Windows boxes for Macs was a more idiosyncratic, unlikely quest than it became by the time the later “Get a Mac” commercials debuted. The most famous of the “Switch” ads featured teenager Ellen Feiss–this particular commercial is a follow-up to that one, and supposedly never aired. (Fun fact: I went to the same high school as Ellen, two decades earlier; back in my day, we used Radio Shack TRS-80s.)

iPod (c. 2001): Is this ad really from only seven years or so ago? The guy is goofy, the iMac looks retro, and even though it, like iPod ads to come, shows someone rocking out, it also feels obligated to try and explain the benefits of digital music. Eventually, iPod ads would become lifestyle celebrationse that assumed you knew what they were for, but this one is about a early-adopter gadget and why you might want it.

Power Mac G4 Cube (2000): When folks bring up the Cube–the only famous flop of Steve Jobs’ second Apple tenure–I always admit, in the interest of full disclosure, that I drank the Kool-Aid and gave it a good review in PC World. It had its issues as a workaday computing device (it was hard to get at the CD drive without shutting the machine off), but this much is undeniable: It looked fantastic in TV commercials.

Original iMac (1999): These days, so few computers are beige that it’s been years since I had reason to use the phrase “beige box.” When the original iMac debuted, though, the notion of a colorful computer was new and divisive: Some people bought the original iMac because they came in colors, while others spurned them for precisely the same reason. Here’s Jeff Goldblum, perhaps the last famous person to appear in an Apple ad as a more-or-less traditional pitchman.

Original iMac (1999): More Goldblum–in 1999, there were still people who were intimidated by e-mail and the Internet, and the original iMac was aimed at them.

Think Different (1997): The rational reaction to this ad, one of Apple’s most famous, is probably to scoff at its implicit comparison of people who buy a particular brand of computer to a collection of the last century’s greatest statesmen, artists, and scientific types. I gotta admit, though, that I find the ad moving. We Mac owners don’t deserve the comparison; Steve Jobs, in some ways at least, does. And this ad sure made clear that his return to Apple would not be business as usual. (Side note: The voiceover is by Richard Dreyfuss.)

Macintosh (c. 1995): It’s been an Apple tradition of surprisingly long standing to run both ads bashing Windows and one bragging that you can run it on a Mac. Here’s one from the Windows 95 era; it’s not specific about what means of putting Windows on a Mac it’s talking about, and I’ve forgotten what it was. (It’s not unreasonable to say that Boot Camp, Parallels, and VMware Fusion are the first means of running a Microsoft operating system on an Apple computer which are actually worth bothering with.)

Macintosh (c. mid 1990s): I’m not sure exactly when this Mac ad dates from, but it apparently comes from a forgotten age in which the Internet didn’t revolve around the Web (I do see Netscape Navigator briefly, tucked behind another window) but schools effortlessly streamed full-motion video over the Net.

Performa (c. mid 1990s): I include this commercial–dating from an era in which some Apple ads were still dedicated to simply explaining what a home computer could do–mostly because it includes a glimpse of eWorld, the short-lived Apple online service which is so obscure that nobody even bothers to make fun of it.

Power Macintosh (c. 1994): This ad was produced at a time when a bald guy in a suit was still visual shorthand for “important businessperson,” the After Dark screensaver was ubiquitous, and a Mr. Potato Head signaled wacky rebellion from corporate tradition. It was also a period in which Macs were so bedraggled that the only claim it appears to make about them is that they can read DOS floppies–which is just plain sad.

Newton (c. 1993): The comparison between the Newton and the iPhone has been made so many times that it’s incredibly trite–but it’s impossible to watch this Newton ad without thinking about it.

PowerBook Duo (1992): Many Apple innovations have had lasting impact on the computer industry. The idea of sliding a laptop into a desktop case like a giant VCR tape, however, did not.

PowerBook (c. early 1990s): The first Mac notebook ad involving a basketball player on an airplane–the great Kareem Abdul Jabbar.

PowerBook (c. early 1990s): I include this ad in part because “What’s on Your PowerBook” ranks among the better-known Apple campaigns–but also because the buttoned-down, bespectacled guy bragging about the mundane business applications he runs on his Mac (“org charts!”) is practically a proto-John Hodgman, except he’s arguing that Macs can be just as boring as PCs. Note also that the Internet only comes up in passing when he mentions e-mail, pegging this as an early-1990s commercial rather than a mid-1990s one.

Macintosh (c. 1990): After “1984,” Mac ads got incredibly tedious for years–in the Sculley era, they were full of guys in pinstriped shirts standing in anonymous offices discussing ROI. It’s as if Apple’s primary goal was to convince the world that Macs were just as lacking in personality as PCs. This is an ad of that sort, but it’s not bad, and it makes me nostalgic for the days of “portrait” displays.

Mac Portable (c. 1989): The Mac Portable was ungainly, illegible, and unaffordable ($6500), but Apple managed to make it look pretty appealing in this commercial. Note that in the late 1980s, it was still logical to address an ad for a pricey computer at people who weren’t very comfortable with computers. Also, setting the ad in an airplane terminal associated it with flying without showing someone trying to use this behemoth aboard a plane.

Apple IIgs (c. 1986): Here’s minimalism for you–this ad for the last iteration of the Apple II line makes no claims for the machine other than that it can be used to do homework.

Macintosh (1980s): This ad from Australia sports elaborate special effects, at least for a 1980s Apple commercial. In Australia, as in the U.S., wearing half-glasses is a sign of fabulous business success.

Macintosh (c. 1984): Twenty-four years ago, bitmapped fonts were kind of dazzling–even in blocky black-and-white–and Apple saved the exotic input device known as the mouse for the grand finale.

Macintosh (1984): Sorry to be sacrilegious–this ad, directed by Ridley Scott, has been called the best TV commercial of all time, but I’m not even sure if it’s ony of my ten favorite Apple spots. (I dunno–maybe it’s the utter lack of humor.) 1984 may not have turned out to be like 1984, but those IBM-using lemmings only grew in number in subsequent years, while the Mac struggled.

Apple IIc (c. 1984): In 1984, laptops as we later came to know them didn’t exist yet, and you could market a fairly svelte desktop (although I don’t think that term existed yet) as a sort of portable computer. I’m not sure how Apple got away with the image of a CRT monitor disappearing into the carrying case, though.

Apple II (c. 1981): As far as recall, Dick Cavett was the first celeb to do Apple ads, years before Jeff Goldblum, Eminem, and Mahatma Gandhi. Unlike those guys, he donned a jacket and tie for the occasion. For all the radical differences in Apple ads circa 1981 and circa 2008, they’re consistent in some ways: The voiceover performer in current iPhone ads has an urbane vibe that’s not unlike Cavett’s, as do multiple other narrators of Apple ads over the years.

Apple II (c. 1978): This ad, the earliest Apple-related one I can find, is from some local (Los Angeles-based?) an Oklahoma City computer dealer, not Apple itself–and even in 1978, its cheapo aesthetics probably gave Steve Jobs the heebie-jeebies. I think it’s kinda adorable, though, and I’m glad that somebody bothered to upload it to YouTube. The family that Pongs together belongs together!

Okay, which Apple ads did I ignore that I should have included? Are my takes on any of the ones I did include off-base? Lemme know what you think…and if it turns out that enough people are as obssessed with old computer ads as I am, I may round up more of ’em.


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13 Comments For This Post

  1. pishmoffle Says:

    That was a rather nice rundown.

    I’m pretty young, so I was all too young to see most of these when they came out.

    Now I kind of want a Newton, though…

  2. ircyclistnow Says:

    Very nice! Thanks for collecting all of these together – I think your choices for ads were right on the money.

  3. Geoff Says:

    I can tell you that the method for running Windows on the Mac, featured in the 1995 ad was a daughter card which actually had an Intel Processor on it and it’s own dedicated RAM, it was an interesting set up, the display used hardware switching and there was a loopback cable that plugged from the mac’s display connector to the daughter card and then the display would plug into the daughter card, so it did a kind of passthrough when in normal operation, then when you launched windows the screen would flicker to the windows system. You had to have a separate partition for windows, but the Mac could read it, so you could drag and drop files to and from the host to the guest. It worked with Windows 95, DOS and Windows 3.1.

    At the time you could also get an emulated version of Windows called SoftWindows, but this only ran Windows 3.1. A year or so later PowerPC CPU’s were fast enough to emulate Windows 95 and the daughter cards were discontinued. IIRC it was almost as cheap to buy a separate PC anyway.

    This kind of secondary processor arrangement was quite common at the time and Sun also produced Workstations which had a daughter card, featuring an intel processor to allow Windows to run.

  4. Scott M. Fulton, III Says:

    Hi, Harry!

    Just writing to say I was delighted to see one of my favorite Apple ads in your collection: the one in the very bottom of the pile. You said it was from Los Angeles, probably because you noticed Wilshire Blvd.

    Nope. It’s from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and the original location of the High Technology store before it moved to N.W. 23rd St. High Tech had the virtue of being the first personal computer store not only in Oklahoma, but in a region of states that included Texas, Kansas, and Arkansas opening in — if I’m not mistaken on my dates — the fall of 1976, just in time to be an early advertiser in Creative Computing magazine.

    In the summer of ’78, High Tech “hired” a consultant to help customers set up their computers — and by “hired,” I mean, they let him learn computer programming at their shop, so it was an even trade. I tried my best to hide the fact I was 13. Back before Apple could afford to do trade shows everywhere, High Technology was Apple’s liaison, and I got an early opportunity as a _very_ young kid to meet Mike Markkula.

    Anyway, it was during this time that High Tech made the first sale of computers to a TV station’s weather dept. for use with graphics. That would be to KTVY Channel 4 (now KFOR), and yes, an Apple II was used to generate graphics for tornado and thunderstorm watches in 1978.

    I have very warm memories of High Technology, and I’m glad you were able to find this one.


    Scott Fulton

  5. Harry McCracken Says:

    Thanks, Scott! Great story, and I’m about to amend the info on the ad. I’m sure I must have seen ads for the store in early issues of Creatie Computing…

  6. Andrew Pass Says:

    Thanks for pulling this together. As an educator, I think that this post could prompt some very interesting learning experiences.

  7. Frank Says:

    Ah, nostalgia. My first Mac was a Macintosh II which the startup company I worked for in college gave to me. My for bought Mac was a PowerBook 100.
    About the commercial for Macintosh (c. 1995), what Apple was selling was that Performa and Quadra with 486 processor card that ran a Window OS also so you can run both systems in one machine. This is was well before VirutalPC, Parallels and other emulators coming out. Here is a link to Apple and EveryMac with the specs:

  8. TimD Says:

    Two additional ads would be nice to see in this collection:
    The one where the Dad is setting up the new home PC. The son grows tired of his Dad trying to get everything set up, and when Dad asks him where he’s going, he replies “to the Robinsons’s. They have a Mac.” (Robinson’s may not have been their last name…)

    Another is the multi-color iMac introduction, with the song “They Come in Colors”

  9. Qka Says:

    You might have included “Lemmings” – the ad where the business people are marching off the cliff. I believe it was from 1986. It was to introduce AppleTalk networking and the original LaserWriter printer, and that they were intended for serious business users. Of course insulting your intended user by likening them to lemmings did not go over well. In my opinion it was the first bad Mac ad.

    Not a video ad, but there was US elections result issue of Newsweek magazine in November 1984 that contained only Mac ads. I still have a copy around here somewhere.

  10. joel Says:

    Great collection.

    I might have also included a couple of the first monochromatic iPod ads from 2003/2004 for two reasons: 1) They were beautiful in their simplicity and messaging. 2) They represented the beginning of the iPod explosion into the mainstream (I think they were the first to announce compatibility w/ the PC).

    IMO these were the foundation for the current iPod brand – and to some extent, Apple’s brand.

  11. Steven Hurdle Says:

    If you did another run-down, a history of Commodore ads would be a blast through memory lane for a lot of people. It’s what I’d most want to see.

    A run-down of Microsoft ads would be more relevant to some people perhaps, and would let you delve into collosal flops like “Bob” (I think there was a TV ad for Bob) on the one hand, and pop-culture successes like the “Xbox” on the other.

  12. magusxxx Says:

    Great work! There is only one I can think of you didn’t add. The infamous Lisa commercial starring none other than Kevin Cosner.

  13. Kerrin Shea Says:

    I seem to remember a particular man — I don’t know if he worked for TBWAChiatDay or worked in communications at Apple (I think he worked at Apple) — who was the person most responsible for the first six or so Bondi iMac ads back in 1998.

    He left shortly thereafter. I’m asking, Does anyone know his name?

    He kept those early iMac ads so simple and focused, my hat is off to him.

    Does anyone remember his name?

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