Can you market unmarketability? A commercial that's been running everywhere lately caught my interest by doing just that. It's the new iPad Air spot, that sells its product by associating it with a genre that's normally equated with box office poison: poetry. Check it out:
The voice-over you hear is Robin Williams. As Rob Walter on the Yahoo.tech blog points out, this entire sermon about the glories of poetry is lifted right out of the movie The Dead Poets Society. He also notes that this isn't the first time Whitman has been used to sell product; Levi's did it in 2009 (covered by this blog here).
But to a poetry fan like myself, such precedent doesn't make this choice any less odd. Poetry is generally the most hated of all art forms. It seems almost once a month that some generally uniformed expert holds forth about its irrelevancy. When it's not accused of being unreadable, it's written off as merely corny.
So why invoke this outre form of communication to sell one of the world's hippest new reading (among other things) devices? The rationale for such a strategy can be deduced by comparison with a competitive spot: the one for Kindle Fire's HDX that takes an aggressive swipe at the iPad Air:
Two ways to sell. The Kindle Fire is portrayed as a rational choice. It's lighter, claims it has a sharper picture, and most of all, it's at least $100 cheaper than its competitor. But the iPad Air promises you something more, if less tangible. Instead of just a tool, it offers you the prospect of a more creative life -- one in which you can make a difference.
All of which brings to mind a comment the critic Slavoj Zizek made recently about the current state of consumer culture: "today we buy commodities neither for their utility nor as status symbols. We buy them to get the experience they provide; we consume them to make our lives meaningful."
You could argue, of course, that the visual lyricism of the iPad commercial really is about specific, rational benefits: it tells you, in so many direct and indirect images, that the Air can be used as much for creating content as it is for consuming it.
But, despite their generally superior operating systems, Apple products have always been about more than mere functionality.
Since its famous 1984 spot, when Apple promised that its computers could help you escape the thought control of conformity, the brand has offered magical experiences rather than merely cool things. What this translates to here is the idea that there are some things the money you save on a Kindle Fire just can't buy.
That's why the reference to poetry fits. Whatever value one sees in it simply doesn't translate into cash. Do even the most famous poets get rich on what they write?
Poetry, in fact, is so against the common sense economic mind that when it is taken at all seriously in popular culture, it often leads to dire consequences. Think about what happens in The Dead Poets Society film. Robin Williams' ("Keating" in the movie) poetry recitations are meant to waken "the boys" from their utilitarian slumbers, i.e., to show them there's more to learning (and life) than becoming a lawyer, doctor or executive.
Those who take this message to heart, though, meet with bad ends. One boy, hopped up on Romantic poetry, chases the girl of his dreams into jock turf. Of course, he promptly gets his ass kicked. Another, inspired by poems to disobey his dad's wishes (to become a doctor) ends up shooting himself. Williams' himself, as a result of such rantings, is fired from his teaching gig.
But with the iPad Air's mini movie, of course, such qualms need never arise. Because the commercial takes such anti-economic tendencies and marries them to a brand people love to buy -- one they believe in almost like a religion. The spot offers you a safe way to spend your money on a commodity that promises to take you above and beyond the boring world of money.
As such, you could say it's in love with the idea of poetry, rather than poetry itself. Perhaps, then, the commercial invents a new brand of poetry -- or, to be more exact: the idea of poetry as a brand in and of itself.