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Apple’s Walt Whitman-Quoting iPad Air Commercial: A Little Corny?

Rob Walker

It’s been a while since Apple offered us a thrilling new product innovation — but at least the company has kept up a steady stream of glossy and attention-getting ads.

The latest debuted over the weekend, touting the iPad Air as a magical tool for creativity and progress. A minute-and-a-half montage offers a barrage of examples: explorers, photographers, musicians, children and sumo wrestlers do amazing things, thanks to this device. While all this flits by, we hear a monologue about poetry, quoting (a truncated version of) Walt Whitman’s “O Me! O Life!” promising us that “The powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” It ends with a question: “What will your verse be?”

This is Whitman’s second involuntary endorsement in recent years: A Levi’s spot back in 2009 used what’s believed to be an actual wax cylinder recording of the poet reading some lines from his “America.” The monologue in the iPad Air ad is actually a bit from the 1989 film Dead Poets Society, delivered by Robin Williams in his role as an inspirational English instructor.

Honestly, this strikes me as a bit of a middlebrow move for Apple. Dead Poets Society was, let’s face it, a pretty corny movie. Whitman, while genuinely groundbreaking in his time, is by now a safe and easy choice to represent Poetry as an idea. And landing on “What will your verse be?” doesn’t feel like an inspirational moment — it feels like a cheap slogan.

Then again, a slogan is exactly what it is here, and I certainly understand Apple’s larger goal. In real life, most people probably think of the iPad as something for reading, watching movies, playing games — consuming. Apple has always pushed the idea that its products don’t merely improve individual lives; they improve society, culture and the world. They are not for the passive masses, but for creative mavericks.

Certainly this spot fits that pattern. In fact it fits it so neatly that it feels, to me, pretty flat: safe, rote, expressing a sentiment that nobody could seriously disagree with. But maybe that’s what happens when the maverick idea goes mass.

Rob Walker wrote the Ad Report Card column for Slate and is now a columnist for Yahoo Tech. You can follow Rob on Twitter here, and like Yahoo Tech on Facebook right here