The Simplicity of Apple's Advertising : 1977-1997

by Linus Edwards


Apple has always been known for its beautiful minimalist design. Products like the original Macintosh, the iPod, and the iPhone all follow that guiding line of simplicity. Apple tends to winnow out any superfluous design accents that don't fit within the overall oneness of a product. This obsession with minimalist design also extends out to other areas of the company, including their advertising.

I've collected print ads from Apple, from their earliest days in the late 1970s to the present, which illuminate their continued focus on simplicity in design. In the first part of this two part series, I’ll look at Apple’s first twenty years of advertising.


Apple came right out of the gate with their vision of simplicity fully formed. This “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” ad was one of the first produced by the company and eschewed most staples of advertising. No long winded ad copy, no technical specs, not even a picture of the actual computer. It was simply a “mission statement” as to how Apple wanted the world to think about their philosophy. In some ways it's a bit pretentious, but I think Steve Jobs wanted to emphasize how Apple was different from its competitors. This ad made that abundantly clear.


Apple initially continued with extremely simple ads for the Apple II, this one being a great example. While obviously the kitchen and outfits are very dated, the composition of the ad is classic. A single photograph of a scene of people using a computer with the words "Introducing Apple II" overlaid. Apple wasn’t using gimmicks to sell the computer, but simply showed the product and the name.


Sampling of Apple ads from the late 70s and early 80s.

However, this wave of initial simplicity in Apple’s ads took a turn rather quickly in the late 70s and early 80s and entered a dark period for a number of years afterwards. Apple began to rely on the typical computer ads of the day, including ones that had actors dressed as historical figures and other very cluttered ads that looked ugly and lacked any semblance of minimalism. I can only imagine Jobs was focused on other things at the time for some of these to be approved.


By the early 80s Apple once again seemed to get its footing back in its advertising and came back to focusing on simplicity.

This is the original ad for the Apple Lisa, which was Apple’s first attempt at a GUI based computer. I would bet money Jobs personally approved this ad, because it seems to have his handwriting all over it. It consists of only a beautiful picture of the computer, and a simple phrase, "Apple invents the personal computer. Again." No specs, no long winded ad copy, not even an Apple logo. It's pure simplicity and yet is very powerful. Unfortunately, despite this beautiful ad, the Apple Lisa didn't make it in the marketplace.


Apple eventually moved beyond the Lisa and produced the landmark Macintosh computer, which used simplicity as its biggest revolutionary feature. That was reflected in the advertising for the original Mac.

Here's the cover of an advertising pamphlet for the original Macintosh. Again, it follows a similar pattern to the Apple Lisa ad - simple text on top of a photograph.

When you turn the page over, there's a two page spread showing the Mac in its full glory, stating simply, "Introducing Macintosh. For the rest of us." It does add a bit of clutter with its extra paragraphs of text and a photo of the Mac team, but overall it's firmly in the minimalist Apple ideal of advertising.


Apple later that year had an interesting experiment in buying out every ad slot in an issue of Newsweek magazine. While this could have led to a major overload of advertising, they thought out each page as part of a greater whole and made great use of minimalism in the ads.

You can see the first two pages combine to form a picture of the Mac. No title, no words, nothing besides a simple picture. While the later pages in the ad contain words and descriptions, having the section begin with a bare picture of your product is a bold move. Apple had the faith that they designed the Mac so well that it could look good without any adornment.

These two pages from the Newsweek ads are clearly the heart and soul of Apple advertising. Of course it has the simple picture with a sentence overlaid. But, the way it’s framed gets to why the Mac is revolutionary – because you can control it with a mouse. The simplicity is not just a gimmick, it emphasizes what’s truly important about the product. A person doesn’t get lost in ad copy looking at this, but sees a hand touching a mouse and knows that’s the focus of the Mac.

This is the back cover of the Newsweek, with one of my favorite Apple ads of all-time. Apple was so confident in how good the Mac looked, it didn’t mind using the back of it in a full page ad on the back cover of a major magazine. Nothing else, just the back of the Mac and an Apple logo. So simple, yet more effective at getting your attention than almost anything else they could have put on the back cover.


After the release of the Mac, Apple had more mixed results in their advertising although had sparks of beautiful simplicity. The ad campaign for the Apple IIGS was rather brilliant and used all the hallmarks of great Apple ads.

This might be Apple’s simplest ad ever for one of their products. It removes even pictures and is simply black text on a white background. It invokes the creativity of historical figures in a similar vein to their later “Think Different” campaign. The utter starkness of the ad actually makes it stand out more than a colorful ad full of pictures that would blend into the background noise of most advertising.

This “ear” ad for the IIGS consist of a simple picture, a short catchy sentence, and a small picture of the actual computer. It uses the simplicity of an ear to emphasize that the IIGS would have sound be one of the main features. The IIGS was Apple’s most advanced computer in terms of sound and music at the time. Instead of simply stating that through specs and long winded explanation, this ad conveys it in a simpler but more memorable way.


Sampling of Apple ads from the early to mid 90s.

By the early to mid 90s, Apple’s ads still contained kernels of the former emphasis on simplicity from earlier years, yet, they started to lose their way. Ads began to cram more and more information into them, and became more similar to the competition. There are no clear examples of a truly minimalist ad in this time period that was on par with some of the earlier examples. Apple lost its way both in terms of computers and advertising during the 90s.

However, by 1997, Steve Jobs made his famous return to Apple, rejuvenating not only the product line, but also bringing back, in full force, their emphasis on simplicity in advertising.


Continue reading Part 2 of this series exploring Apple’s advertising from 1997 to the present.