In 2007, I was tasked with analyzing an advertisement using themes from Ramamurthy’s The Transfer of Meaning for an English class…
The Second Coming Has Arrived
God’s white, perfectly manicured fingers scroll through His greatest new invention on the back of the July 1st, 2007 New York Times Magazine, or so Apple Inc. would like us to believe. In homage to the thousands of bloggers and news media stations who have dubbed Apple’s iPhone the “Jesus phone,” Apple has come out with a new advertisement that is “more than a little reminiscent” of Michelangelo’s famous Sistine Chapel.1 In order to appeal to the educated, artistic audience that Apple is known for addressing, Apple draws on this allusion throughout the advertisement. In particular, the advertisement combines celestial imagery with Apple’s token simplicity to try to parallel the connection of advanced technology and clarity in the iPhone’s immaculate conception. This parallel takes an innovative new look at biblical cliches but has the potential to turn off some of its user base.
At the heart of the advertisement is a hand – feathered from darkness. This hand scrolls up the screen of a reclining iPhone – floating above darkness. This screen shows an image of a text-messaging conversation – flooding the darkness. Finally, this illuminating conversation symbolizes the iPhone’s inherent, inerrant purpose – a connection between God and man. If the viewer is still not swayed, Apple has a recommendation at the bottom of the page: “Touching is Believing.”
With this amalgamation of heavenly imagery, Apple hopes that its viewers will be converted to the shining iPhone from the earlier dark days of smart phones like the Blackjack or the Blackberry. Put more simply: “In the beginning… darkness was upon the face of the deep… And God said, ‘let there be light,’ and there was light… and it was good.” (King James Bible 1:1-4). However, Apple makes it clear that this light does not represent a passive brilliance. They separate themselves from the ancient clichéd biblical story by announcing that they are starting a “revolution” in the smart phone market.
This revolution begins with a new way of looking at the relationship between God and his creation. In the advertisement, not only does the iPhone brighten the page for the viewer but it also shines its light back on the hand of God. In fact, without the glow of the iPhone the hand would be in complete darkness. In this way, Apple gives the iPhone a consciousness. Just as Eve’s apple gave her the consciousness to understand the world as God did, so too does the iPhone’s apple – or rather, Apple’s iPhone – represent a higher intelligence than the world has previously seen. However, Apple attempts to rewrite the rest of the story. With their “revolution” they declare that their addition to the Tree of Knowledge is a proud moment: one that should be celebrated as opposed to shunned.
This departure from the biblical story is an important one when considering Apple’s intended audience. Ever since the famous Scopes-Monkey Trial, reinterpreting the old fashioned ideas in the bible has become commonplace for more educated classes. In particular, by placing a supreme importance on innovation and by shedding the scales of fear previously associated with that modernization, Apple is able to reinvent the Garden of Eden: associating new understanding with God and old fashioned beliefs with the snake. This ability to provide an interpretation of the bible where knowledge shines at the forefront (and fore finger) of God’s own consciousness helps attract an educated audience who values innovative thinking. In addition, the artistic community is known for its avant-garde thinkers who challenge conventional wisdom. Therefore, Apple’s reinvention of the religious habits of thought would provide a canvas that allows creative thinkers to draw new conclusions about the world.
However, no matter how modern Apple’s bible story is, there is an underlying alienation embedded in the advertisement. In addition to those who only know Michelangelo as a pizza-loving Ninja Turtle, those unfamiliar with the Judeo-Christian story may be puzzled by the parody’s implications. Because the ad is displayed on the back of such a prominent magazine, those who do not understand the allusion – whether because they grew up Hindu, Buddhist, or Atheist – may ignore the product or even be turned off by it if they feel it has missionary tendencies.
This short-sightedness may have led to an “oppositional reading” as described by Stuart Hall in his essay ‘Encoding/Decoding.’ As Hall pointed out, while the producer – in this case Apple – may have had an intended, “encoded” message, a separate cultural situation – for instance, that of many people who have grown up with forced Christian prayer – may have led to an oppositional reading (Ramamurthy). Therefore, by announcing that “Touching is Believing” Apple risks alienating those who have been told their whole lives all the different ways they should attempt to believe in Christ. If not alienated, many may simply be displeased with the religious connotations and therefore, turn away from the product. This dichotomy of intentions may lose Apple its transcendent image among some customers who may no longer view Apple as the progressive company it has always been made out to be.
While not necessarily making up for its slighting of certain groups, Apple attempts to provide at least some ways to cater to those less inclined in Bible studies. In particular, they attempt to exhibit how pristinely simple the iPhone is through a minimalist advertisement. Therefore, the advertisement’s text is limited, containing only the most necessary information: the product name, where it can be found, and a three-word tagline. The font is the simple, staple font of Apple and the text is placed at the extremities of the advertisement in order to create as much blank space around the center image as possible.
This blank, black space with a white hand inside has a dual purpose. Not only does it contain the aforementioned religious connotations but it also has become a symbol of simplicity for Apple since Steve Jobs introduced Apple’s first portable computer eight years ago. That day, at Macworld 1999, Jobs donned a simple, blank, black long-sleeve shirt over blue jeans. Ever since, almost every demonstration video out of Apple has featured a white man in a blank, black long sleeve shirt. While a discussion on race would be better suited to another essay the other recurring theme that reappears in this advertisement is true: simplicity begins with a blank, black background.
One tension, however, jumps out at the viewer where simplicity is concerned. The scrolling finger is shown in motion, as three blurred, translucent fingers below the main opaque pointing finger. This seems to add clutter and discord to the otherwise impeccable image. However, Apple most likely decided it could sacrifice some simplicity in order to utilize the positive attributes motion brings to the advertisement.
At the most basic level, to those unfamiliar with the iPhone, it clarifies that the screen is indeed a touch-screen. The motion also gives the image a non-standard quality. This slight dissonance could be enough to get someone passing by to stop and take notice. In addition, it gives the advertisement its own identity in the parody of the Sistine Chapel. The advertisement resembles the Michelangelo painting enough for most people to recall that image. However, the motion gives the iPhone a fun, modern edge – God is not just connecting with his creation, he is playing with it. Finally, it shows that Apple’s “revolution” is in motion and that the viewer should be excited for more. If the viewer follows the finger from its origin, it is now pointing up – toward heaven, the future, stock shares, who knows?
Overall, Apple’s advertisement is an effective tool utilized to draw educated and artistic audiences into its sacred community. While it is humorous to think that such a smart phone could possibly parallel anything in the time of Michelangelo, let alone that of Adam and Eve, the advertisement’s allusions are nonetheless artfully intertwined into its simple layout. As the bright iPhone floats in the void of darkness, only one question remains: how many iPhones will be in stockings come the anniversary of another immaculate conception?
- “Apple Debuts New IPhone ‘God Phone’ Print Ad (with Image).” MacDailyNews. 12 July 2007. 16 Sept. 2007.
- The Holy Bible: King James Version. New York: American Bible Society, 1999.
- Macworld NY 1999-the First IBook Introduction. Perf. Steve Jobs. 2006. YouTube. 16 Sept. 2007.
- Ramamurthy, Anandi. “The Transfer of Meaning.” Constructions of Illusion. Writing 1 Handout, 2007.