Assessing the Influence of U2 and Those Silhouette Ads on the iPod's Success
Steve Jobs' announcement on Wednesday that he was resigning as CEO of Apple has set off a wave of reflections on the many contributions he's made to tech and popular culture. Among music fans, the invention that has (deservedly) received the most attention is the iPod, which Jobs introduced 10 years ago this October and has since become the accepted cultural shorthand for "MP3 player" in much the same way as "Kleenex" acts as a stand-in for any kind of tissue.
Much of this success is due to the genius of the product itself — from day one, the iPod hasn't had any serious competition as the best digital music player on the market. But specs and aesthetics aside, the iPod's rise to ubiquity was crucially aided by those brilliant black-silhouettes-with-white-earbuds TV commercials, which Apple and U2 more or less invented with the 2004 spot for "Vertigo."
In a 2004 interview in SPIN, Bono told Chuck Klosterman that he viewed the iPod as the most important development for popular music since the invention of the electric guitar. It's a bold claim, but not a ridiculous one, and his band's hitching its wagon to Jobs' company proved to be one of the savvier artist-corporation team-ups in recent history. U2 has the most name recognition of any working rock band in the world, so for Apple, the partnership was a can't-miss opportunity. It worked for the musicians, too: U2 was, and is, nothing if not the ultimate populist rock group. Bono wasn't worried about this being viewed as a sell-out move, because anyone who gets self-righteous about the idea of a rock band "selling out" had already written U2 off a decade earlier. And as far as Fortune 500 companies go, Apple was the only one cool enough for a band like U2 to hook up with while retaining even an ounce of rock 'n' roll cred.
The commercial itself works on several levels. As a music video, it's as good as anything that was being produced at the time. The silhouettes of the band members have become as much a part of the group's iconography as Bono's white flag at Live Aid or the groundbreaking "claw" stage from the just-wrapped 360° tour. Besides selling iPods, the ad doubled effortlessly as a spot for then-current album How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, likely doing more for that album's sales than a conventional music video would have — especially considering that MTV had all but stopped playing videos by 2004, and YouTube was still about six months from invention. For Apple, the juxtaposition of its white earbuds on black dancing silhouettes created an ideal starting point to market the iPod as a fashion accessory as well as a cutting-edge gadget. The aesthetic was easy to copy, and therefore guaranteed to have an almost endless shelf life, should Apple decide to adapt it to other artists — which, of course, it did.
For the first few years of the iPod's existence, people who wanted one or were on the fence about buying one still seemed to outnumber those who actually had them. The "Vertigo" commercial, as well as the introduction of the special-edition U2-branded iPod, gave an extremely venerable face to the movement and made the deck-of-cards-sized machine seem less alien. The partnership created one of the most iconic commercials of the past decade, and Jobs' realization of what it would do for the iPod's cultural value is a testament to his talent for reading the market and marrying art with commerce.