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How Apple’s Jony Ive Became the World’s Most Important Infomercial Star

Rob Walker
Tech Columnist
Yahoo Tech

As Apple rumors swirled over the past week or so, I remained serene. I didn’t want to guess what the company would release.

New iPhone, iWatch, iEggBeater, who cares? I just wanted Jony Ive — Apple’s staid, British design honcho — to tell me how amazingly magical it is.

And sure enough, the crescendo of the most recent come-to-Apple promo event was a video touting the Apple Watch, narrated entirely by Ive. The product is “new” but “somehow familiar,” he reassured us, reflecting an “elegant simplicity” that built upon the input of “horological experts” and yada yada yada.

It was totally over the top — and, in the moment, very convincing.

Clearly I’m not the only one who recognizes that, in the post-Jobs era, Apple’s absurd promotional videos, featuring Ive sounding positively gobsmacked by the details of the company’s latest product offering, are the real star of its carefully managed gizmo-launch spectacles.

Evidence: IKEA’s surprisingly viral parody of the form, a comically wonder-filled video description of its latest catalog. This obvious Apple parody was released just as the latest round of Apple hype was gaining steam. Why would a multinational furniture company release a clip lampooning a tech company’s promotional style?

Because, somehow, what amount to pretentious Apple infomercials have become a kind of cultural touchstone, a common reference point.

I’d attribute this almost entirely to Ive’s singularly ridiculous and charming performances. To study these — they date back at least 14 years — is to witness a man repeatedly, endlessly, astonished by his own (or at least his employer’s) achievements.

The English accent, the puppy-dog eyes, the varying-shades-of-gray T-shirt, the bleached-white background that suggests he speaks from some kind of celestial clean room: It’s all ridiculous.

But it works, because it’s impossible to doubt that Ive really believes every word of it.

The history? It’s so simple
Politely put, Ive’s message has been consistent. Rudely stated, he has been saying the same thing over and over, about a parade of different products, forever.

Here is Ive back in 2000, enthusing about a new Apple offering. This is well before these videos settled into their now-familiar form, and back then Ive was just a bit player, not the obvious star. Still, he stands out when he appears at around the 1-minute mark to tell us that this product boasts “a design that left you with the sense that of course that’s the most natural, the most elegant solution possible.”

The product is the Apple G4 Cube, which went on to have minimal traction in the market. But the hallmark Ive tropes are here: Apart from banging on about how “simple” the object is, despite its awesome power, he mentions at least one feature that is “just like magic.” (In this instance, the magic is in the way discs eject from the cube.)

Back then Ive spoke in front of a white background, but one that suggested walls. The following year, describing the iPod, he was clearly in an office. But this is really the debut of Ive the mesmerizer, not least because the importance of the iPod’s design was so heavily emphasized.

So far as I know, Steve Jobs never condescended to appearing in one of these promos, preferring to cast his spell from the more thrilling context of a stage, in front of a live audience. And the various other Apple execs who recur through these videos, while energetic and enthusiastic, largely come across as a bunch of used-car salesmen, rattling off boring technical specs.

But Ive (essentially introduced by Moby) sounds almost emotional. Start at around 3:15 here:

It’s all about the “simplicity” of the device’s interface, you see. “It’s really, really straightforward.” “It’s so simple.” “Completely intuitive.”

Yes, yes, we get it. From this moment on, Ive stands out, again and again, as anchor of these videos. Here in 2002, touting the iMac G4, Ive’s bit starts about 30 seconds in and lasts around a minute:

It’s revolutionary and yet simple, he explains. Have we heard that before? We have. Yet Ive’s delivery makes the same old hokum sound like an epiphany.

Fast-forward to 2009, and here’s Ive in his now-familiar white mystery room. By then he’d become the video opener. He marvels at a newer-generation iMac from his undisclosed location: Turns out the thing is revolutionary and simple!

After ‘one more thing’
All of this used to be a footnote to Jobs’ main-event showmanship. But in the era of the “lower wattage” Tim Cook, the Barnum-esque “one more thing” moment has faded from live product announcements.

Instead, the Ive spiel — always via video, never on stage — has quietly become the most culturally resonant aspect of Apple’s new-release rituals. If you watched the most recent iteration, you know that the real climax was Cook basically directing our attention to the Apple Watch video, which (in what I believe is a first) was narrated entirely by Ive.

Scroll through the videos on Apple’s YouTube channel (which evidently expunges anything more than a year old), and you can spot the product-announcement examples because the thumbnail is Ive’s clean-shaven head. (Such a simple, efficient solution to the complex problem of hair!)

Consider the video hyping iOS 7, widely seen as reflecting an Ive-led overhaul in the wake of a rival’s dispatch. It’s probably the most Ive-y Apple product clip ever, and also one of the silliest: He rhapsodizes about the typography and icons and the “sense of depth and vitality.”

“The designer recedes,” the designer tells us, “and actually elevates your content.” Frankly, this is the sort of blather that’s best left to internal pitch meetings. But no worries: “I think there is a profound and enduring beauty in simplicity,” Ive tells us. “True simplicity … is about bringing order to complexity.” You don’t say.

We now expect the promo video to be Ive-centric. This time last year, the pitch for the iPhone 5c was kicked off by Ive: “Beautifully, unapologetically plastic.” (The ensuing materials-and-design process details were so extensive that they seemed vaguely defensive.)

And the iPad Air? Well, pitch-video Ive materialized to tell us: “It’s the thinnest, lightest, and also the most advanced iPad we’ve ever built.” (Again the details seemed almost comical. “We reduced the dimensions of the bezel.” Awesome — we’d all been stressing about the “bezel” dimensions.) In any event: “There’s a simplicity to it.”

Who’s laughing?
As this has taken hold, it’s become a focal point for a huge variety of parody videos. Most, unfortunately, aren’t that funny. This one is popular (with 10 million views) and not bad. The real punch lines all involve an absurdly tall new iPhone iteration, but the Ive-era product-video aesthetic is a given:

Personally I’m fond of this faux promo for the Nail Clipper Air — an amazingly thin, light, and simple new … nail clipper. It’s touted in part by a guy who brazenly reinterprets Ive’s perennial wonderment into a pleasingly unhinged enthusiasm for stuff that, upon reflection, isn’t that big a deal:

But of course the parodies do nothing to undermine Apple’s infomercials. To the contrary, they both reflect and reinforce their effectiveness.

In fact, the only surprising thing about the Apple Watch promo video was that, while it was dominated by Ive, he never physically appeared. The video opens with Ive’s name and title, against a white background … but then we never see him.

We just see the Apple Watch and hear its features extolled by Ive. For 10 minutes.

Perhaps his voice is now so reassuringly familiar, so godlike, that we don’t even need to view his clean-shaven visage? He has receded mystically into that pristine-white background; we can only mentally summon the comforting vision of his convincing gaze and elegantly simple T.

“Creating beautiful objects that are as simple and pure as they are functional — well, that’s always been our goal at Apple,” disembodied Ive tells us at the end of the video. And with that promotional message, Ive vanishes, simply and purely, leaving what Apple hopes we will accept as beautiful objects, in his wake.

Maybe this is the ultimate articulation of Ive’s frequent theme of eliminating the unnecessary. Sometimes the most powerful design is — simply — invisible. And by now, the Ive promo spiel has become so effective, so familiar, that the designer himself can become invisible, too.

Write to me at rwalkeryn@yahoo.com or find me on Twitter, @notrobwalker. RSS lover? Paste this URL into your reader of choice: https://www.yahoo.com/tech/author/rob-walker/rss.