Commentary: The Last Pitchman
America has three indigenous art forms: jazz, baseball, and outrageously effective marketing stunts. The self-proclaimed father of public relations, Edward Bernays, was Austrian by birth (he was Sigmund Freud's nephew), but his genius blossomed in New York City in 1929 when he made smoking fashionable for women by marching models down Fifth Avenue waving their "torches of liberty."
America's reigning monarch of marketing is of course Steve Jobs, the Apple (AAPL) chief executive officer who has lately been taking a page from Bernays by describing the iPad as a weapon of freedom—"freedom from programs that steal your private data," as he wrote in a May e-mail exchange with a tech writer. "Freedom from programs that trash your battery. Freedom from porn."
Jobs may be the last true descendant of Bernays, the last great pitchman capable of making vasts swaths of the fractured American public take notice of his latest wares all at the same time. He is famous for his obsessions, such as keeping new products under wraps until he can roll them out at glitzy, tightly scripted, massively observed events. In April, however, a junior Apple engineer left a prototype of the then-unreleased iPhone 4 in a Redwood City (Calif.) bar. Gizmodo, a popular tech blog, got its hands on the device and broke the news about its impressive new features—its uncanny thinness, its high-res display, its forward-facing camera designed to let users video chat with their friends. Nothing was left for Jobs to reveal.
So how is it that when he unveiled the phone on June 7 at the Moscone Center in San Francisco, the event still had the aura of magic? Jobs tossed off the perfect quip about the Gizmodo incident—"Stop me if you've seen this before"— then demonstrated what he called "the most precise, beautiful thing we've ever designed." Wi-Fi went down during his presentation—and it didn't matter. Like all great salesmen, Jobs knows that controlling the product is a lot less important than controlling our desire.
Jobs didn't create the modern product launch. Hollywood, which is in the business of building and marketing an endless stream of new products, discovered long ago that audiences may be fickle, but their appetites can be stoked. (Even Russell Crowe is easier to control than word of mouth.) So movie studios orchestrate dramatic buildups—trailers, posters, puffball TV, Web teasers—that crescendo at glittering premieres where the stars come out, creating additional entertainment value. For hardcore movie fans, what happens before the movie hits theaters can be as enthralling as the film itself.
The car industry understands the rollout as well. It introduces new products at trade shows that have morphed over the years from dealer gatherings to highly produced events targeted at consumers. Car buffs show up with their friends and spend the day ogling the new chrome and the shapely spokesmodels. "It's like a day at a theme park," says Eric Hirshberg, chief creative officer of ad agency Deutsch's Los Angeles office.
Jobs brought the Hollywood-style rollout to the tech industry in 1984 when he set out to make the launch of the first Mac a pop cultural milestone not unlike the first Star Wars movie, which he studied closely. He commissioned the most famous Super Bowl commercial in history, the futuristic "1984" spot directed by Ridley Scott (Blade Runner) in which a freedom-loving woman hurled a hammer through a giant computer screen from which a totalitarian figure was lecturing a room full of worker drones. The hammer of liberty was a not-so-subtle metaphor for Apple's struggle against IBM (IBM).
Jobs personally demonstrated that first Mac in an auditorium full of cheering fans. In his double-breasted blue blazer and green bow tie (since replaced by a black mock turtleneck), he looked like a character from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. "He wanted to stop the world in its tracks," says Steve Hayden, now vice-chairman of Ogilvy & Mather, who worked on the first Mac campaign.
Shortly thereafter Jobs was fired, and the company floundered for 12 years, losing its mystique as well as its profits. He returned in 1997 and the rollouts— iMac, iPod, iPhone, iPad—have become self-propagating events in which the media ritualistically attempts to ferret out advance details, and Apple keeps the rabbit in the hat. What made the iPhone 4 launch worth watching was its departure from the usual script. Gizmodo created a global stir on Apr. 19 when it posted a picture of the new phone. "We got it," the blog boasted. "We disassembled it. It's the real thing, and here are all the details."
It's a sign of Jobs' mystique that some people wondered whether the iPhone-on-a-barstool snafu might be a piece of diabolically clever guerrilla marketing designed to stir prelaunch buzz. The hapless engineer who left the prototype in the bar "created a ton of chatter out there," says Dean Crutchfield, senior partner at Method, an agency that advises companies about the care and feeding of their brands. "Whether it was intentional or not, my God did it work! He should get a bonus. It also shows that Apple has a drink once in a while." In other words, even when Jobs fumbles a rollout, he still comes out looking smart.
There was something endearing about seeing Jobs struggle with technical difficulties on June 7. It turns out that even the CEO of Apple can't get his phone to work sometimes. We all know how that feels, especially those of us in bandwidth-challenged metropolises who must rely on AT&T's (T) spotty cellular service. Jobs also got a laugh when he insisted that journalists and bloggers turn off their laptops and stop hogging bandwidth. The media complied, as it so often does when Jobs commands.
Jobs makes all of this look easy. Of course, it's not. Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) chose the same day to present its new smartphone-compatible printers. These are products many of us will soon be using, but the HP event was drowned out by Apple's. HP says its rollout was locked in before Apple's was announced. HP CEO Mark Hurd can't help it if Jobs makes the weather.
With the media landscape so fragmented, stopping the world in its tracks isn't easy anymore. "We sometimes think that in a connected, interactive world, salesmanship is no longer effective," adds Kelly O'Keefe, executive director of the Virginia Commonwealth University Brandcenter, an advertising studies program. "But it's not true. We are still attracted to it. We are looking for it. We need something to believe in. People believe in Apple. They believe in Jobs."
He's the last great pitchman. Until the next great pitchman comes along