Who else wants to take a bite out of Apple?
Led by Steve Jobs, the Cupertino, California consumer-electronics company was never afraid of using its TV commercials to tilt at bigger competitors, like IBM and Microsoft. Now that it has grown well beyond its upstart days , and is under different leadership, Apple is the one getting lanced.
Google's Moto X and Microsoft's Surface do everything from depicting a personified iPhone as one of the world's laziest machines to portraying Apple's electronic assistant Siri as a finicky do-nothing. To do so, the companies tapped two ad agencies - CP+B for Microsoft and know for taking creative risks. And they join longtime Apple rival Samsung, which has for months used ad to poke fun at the people who wait in long lines at Apple Stores for the latest iGadget and at the perceived limitations of Apple's gizmos.
Despite the commercial bullying, Apple hasn't so much as nodded in any of its rivals' direction.
"Competitors have caught up," said Joe Glennon, a professor in the advertising department at Temple University in Philadelphia. "The Apple product life cycle is longer, and real innovation less frequent," he added. "Since competition is catching up with technology, and adding differences that can be leveraged - demonstrated - Samsung can take a swing at Apple, and land a few punches. When your product is very good, but not Apple, you can challenge the Apple-fanboy mentality and win many fights."
The 30-second donnybrooks have begun to erupt more frequently, even as consumers' perception of Apple grows even more robust. Apple recently ousted Coca-Cola as the world's most valuable brand, according to Interbrand, a marketing consultancy owned by Omnicom Group. The report estimated the value of Apple's brand to be $98.3 billion, up 28% from its 2012 finding. Coca-Cola, meanwhile, fell to third place - the first time since Interbrand started its research in 2000 that Coke has not been on top.
Apple shouldn't get too comfortable. The world's second most-valuable brand? Google.
As Apple's halo extends, its rivals have been chomping at it. Samsung arrived early to the fight, launching ads in 2011 for its Galaxy S2 that showed people presumably waiting in line outside an Apple store enraged and saddened when passers-by with Samsung gear sport better devices.
In recent months, Microsoft joined the fray, running a 30 second spot in which its Surface tablet shows off features the iPad lacks. As that takes place the voice of Siri frets. "Do you still think I'm pretty? " she asks at the spot's end. So too has Moto X, with an ad that shows off the Google-owned devices's "touchless" features while a lazy iPhone insists on being handled in order to work.
If the ad tactics make their mark, it's because they have been proven to do so - by Apple. For years, Apple portrayed itself as the upstart, using a famous 1984 Super Bowl ad to suggest I.B.M. was a soul-killing corporate behemoth that kept users of its technology in thrall to an Orwellian force. In 2001, Apple launched a salvo against the music industry, with a spot that used a phalanx of popular musicians, including Chuck Berry, George Clinton, Dwight Yoakam and Liz Phair to tell consumers to "Rip. Mix. Burn" their own discs using Apple technology, just as record companies were warring with Napster.
And more recently, Apple concocted another popular advertising character assassination, with a three-and-a-half year campaign consisting of 66 separate spots with Justin Long as a hip Mac quietly poking fun a fretful, stodgy Microsoft PC.
Apple did not respond to a query seeking comment. Microsoft and Samsung declined to comment, as did Brian Wallace, vice president of global brand and product marketing at Google's Motorola unit, behind the Moto X campaign, declined to comment on the ads. The ad agencies behind the challenger work - 72ndandSunny for Samsung, CP+B for Microsoft and Droga5 for Motorola, referred queries to the advertisers.
Apple's size, buoyed in recent years by sales of iPhones and iPads, has changed its marketing mission. It's no longer an upstart that can claw market share away from a more powerful rival. In 2011, Apple sold approximately 72.3 million iPhones, according to research from Barclays Capital. In 2016, the firm estimates Apple will sell 213.8 million of the devices. Barclays sees Apple revenue increasing to an estimated $205.2 billion in 2016 from $170.9 billion in 2013.
Instead, its ad efforts seem geared at keeping iGizmos selling, much like Procter & Gamble tries to keep Tide moving off the shelves and PepsiCo attempts to increase the flow of its namesake fizzy brown liquid. Recent Apple ads have focused on product features, upgrades and the utility of the company's devices in everyday life (print ads depicting iPads as magazine substitutes) or not-so-everyday (iPhones with Siri being used as personal assistants by Samuel L. Jackson and Zooey Deschanel). After all, Wall Street often judges the company by how much product its moves each quarter.
Because it's number one - at least in brand image - the company may no longer feel at ease using strategies that belong to a number two, like Avis' famous "We try harder" campaign that poked at Hertz, the dominant car-rental player of the time. "Like many technology companies, Apple is now suffering from the unbearable lightness of being a leader," said Denis Riney, a senior partner at BrandLogic, a Wilton, Conn., marketing consultancy. "It's possible that their management team believes it would be unseemly and possibly self-destructive to strike back against competitors in advertising. "
Meantime, Apple is getting a little taste of the sauce it helped create over the years. "Turnabout is always fair play," said Riney, "and high tech marketing is no exception."