iPod Semiotics

Semiotic analysis of iPod Advertisements. 

Author's Info

Justin D. Salsburey

AI: Bora 10:10

Cell: 260.479.5460 




 iPod Advert Spoofs

Spoof 1) iPod Flea

Spoof 2) Microsoft Designs iPod Package

Spoof 3) iPorn spoof

Spoof 4) Napoleon Dynamite spoof

Spoof 5) Will Farrel ipod/apple switch parody

iPod Commercials

1) Very first iPod Commercial

2) Pop and Lock 

3) Hip Hop iPod Ad

4) Rollerskating (iTunes & iPod)

5) U2 ipod ad (not silhouetted)

6) U2 - Vertigo Ad

7) Almost Over Now (Techno music possibly foreign)

8) Jerk it Out Ceasers Palace

9) iPod Video (Touchscreen) Non-Silhouetted

10) Poppa Large (iPod possibly foreign commercial)

11) Album Art - Cubicle (iPod Nano)

12) Eminem iPod Commercial 

13) Wynston Marsalis iPod Commercial

14) Old Terrible iPod Ad

15) Rock the Rhythym (iPod Nano non-silhouetted)

16) Walkie Talkie Man - Steriogram

17) iPod Rap ad

iPod Related Content

Related 1) Dancer featured in many iPod commercials

Related 2) Apple 30 yr Anniversary Video (Apple is art) 

Related 3) iMac Commercial (tongue)

Related 4) iPod Battery Secret

Related 5) Apple Macintosh Partnership in 1997

Related 6) Bboy dancing in streets


 Semiotic Analysis

It's tiny, white, and full of energy and excitement.  It's a status icon; it's a source of daily fuel and inspirations to the masses.  No, I'm not talking about the white Starbucks cup's you see so often, but that’s a really good guess.  I'm talking about the iPod.  The iPod definitely needs no introduction; it's as commonplace as Coca-Cola, and compact cars.  What started as a gadget for geeks has become one of the most universally desired products on the market today.  Its appeal transcends age, ethnicity, social class etc.  Ask any random person on the street, and if they are being honest they've probably lusted after one at some point.  For a universal product, you need a universal advertising campaign.  Society today is one filled with niche markets, and highly individualistic people.  How do you advertise a product that is so universally desired without spending a fortune?  How do you sell a product to one group without tainting it to another?  You do it with a great advertising campaign that's how.

To understand some of Apple's success with the iPod, I think it is important to understand a little bit of their background.  At the Macworld Expo in 1997(Related Content 5) Steve Jobs announced a new partnership with Microsoft.  The partnership entailed Microsoft investing 150 million dollars in Apple, and a patent cross license for the next five years, which has continued in recent years.  Microsoft also started releasing Microsoft Office for the Macintosh.  Why does all this matter to a semiotic analysis?  There was more to this decision then Microsoft simply dropping 150 million to ensure the success of its competitor.  Steve Jobs and Bill Gates realized that together they dominated 100% of the desktop industry.  Working together instead of against each other they would ensure greater success.  From that point on Microsoft and Apple decided instead of competing they would strive for different goals.  Microsoft leading the way in the business, and financial market, while Apple started focusing on graphic design, video editing, audio editing, and other artistic fields.  From 1997 on a whole new image was developed.  Apple's computers were sleek, sexy, and a work of art.  Apple new they were never going to overtake Microsoft’s niche so they carved out their own.  Today those sleek, sexy computers are the industry standard for graphic design, video editing, and audio editing.  They are stylish, and they are designed for stylish people.  They are works of art, designed for artists, and the iPod's design follows suit.

That’s where semiotics comes in.  An advertising campaign, that’s cheap to produce highly individualized, and very universal at the same time, would be hard, but somehow Apple hit a home run with what they came up with.  The commercials developed were black silhouettes in front of a blue screen, with very slight hints of detail within the black silhouette.  The background colors change, but one thing unifies every version of the commercial series released to date.  Music is delivered to you through their signature white iPod and signature white ear buds, which appear in a whiter than life post-modern fashion.  Apple has managed to steal the color white and make it a very significant sign in their marketing for not only their iPod's but literally everything they make.  Just like having a Nike logo on your shoes or the words "Abercrombie and Fitch" across your chest, having a white computer or a rectangular white mp3 player identifies you with something.  People want to be a part of something they want to belong to something, major clothing labels know that, and so does Apple.

Very early on Apple's advertisements almost had to spoon feed you the concept of the iPod, because nothing had been done that even compared. (Commercial 1)In the first iPod commercial there were no silhouettes, but the concept was the same, plug your iPod into your ears and you'll break out into a fit of dancing, and you can take all that music with you.  However, there was so much about that first commercial that was alien to so many people.  The actor in the first commercial was using a Mac, which for many brought up the question as to whether you had to have a Mac to use this new gadget.  The actor also appeared to be somewhat of a computer nerd, was this just a gadget to turn computer nerds into wannabe break dancers or was there more to it? 

With the enormous success of the iPod it was no longer as necessary to explain to people what an iPod was, but there was no need for the iPod, they had to create a need for the iPod through a more cleverly crafted commercial than a video instruction manual like the first commercial.  The silhouette ads contain many signs, which would be confusing to analyze all at once, so let’s take a look at what's there.  You have a changing background color, which changes for each dancer; you have a black silhouetted dancer with minimal detail visible, you have the white iPod, the white ear buds, the color white, and the music.  These variables alter in some of the ads in the series but these are factors that are fairly consistent from ad to ad.

Black, White, Colors, Music!

The color white is just as much Apples trademark as is their logo the apple, probably even more so than the apple.  And when you make a mere color your trademark, you can rent it out to many different methods of brand association.  I start with the color white because, this is the sign that stays consistent from ad to ad.  Whether it’s a print ad or a commercial the iPod is always white and so are the wires and ear buds.  Imagine the paradigm of this commercial with the figures being white and the iPod and headphones being black.  The principles of figure ground play in here, because the bright objects jump out at you and automatically become the focus of the commercial especially when their background is primarily black.  However, in the paradigm of the switched colors, the dancer would stand out, and the iPod would be less noticeable.  Apple not only achieves great advertising through figure and ground principles in the commercials but in real life as well.  In the past music players have been less than appealing in appearance, and people have more or less tried to hide them by making them dark in color and placing them out of view from others.  However, Apple wanted that same degree of brand association that a pair of trendy designer shoes would rake in, and it happened almost naturally.  Apple was already known for creating functional art, and now they had created something that was functional, artistic, and now wearable.  So now apple can enjoy the same visible walking advertisement that clothing designers receive.  Instead of hiding their wires and their players they now boldly wear white wires and bright white mp3 players.  Not only do people wear them with pride but they wear them in obvious places, strapping them to their biceps, or around their neck in the case of the iPod shuffle.  But why do people feel such a strong desire to sport their players?  They are very attractive, but they are just white gadgets that play music, or at least they were until Apple changed that through their commercials. 

In the ads the silhouettes are black featureless figures.  You never see faces or distinguishing features you see only what could just as easily be a part of me or you, such as belts, sunglasses, or shoes.  The lack of facial features on the dancers communicates a few things.  First off, it lets us imagine that we are the dancers in the commercials.  It is in a way a synecdoche, even though it is hard to notice at first.  If it were any more obvious that clothing, belts, shoes, and glasses were there but the faces were not it might have negative effects and kind of turn us off to the product, but its very subtle.  What makes these ads so effective is that they are so hyperbolic, but the sign in the commercials appears exactly the same in real life; it is our link to the commercials.    The lack of facial features also tells us we are unimportant, and it makes sure that we know why the black figures are dancing.  It can't be the dancer’s personality that makes them dance, because they have no faces, so it must be the most noticeable thing on the person.  So carried over into real life if we want to be noticed and not be just black silhouettes we should purchase iPod's.  After all if iPod's can pump so much life into black silhouettes, then they ought to do the trick for us.  In the very first iPod commercial that I referenced earlier a man loads up his iPod, and dances out the door with it, but what happens once he goes out into public?  Does the man dance through the city streets making a spectacle of himself?  Some of us might not mind that sort of attention, but for most of us that’s a little over the top.  Apple found away around that because they knew, as do the rest of us, that there are social codes of how one should act throughout their daily routines.  Even if we all possessed the talent it requires to dance like the people in the commercials we would look ridiculous just dancing in random public streets.  Just imagine the paradigm of people just dancing with no audience in random public places like the guy in related content video number 6.  This is where the color backgrounds come into play.  The color background represent the haven that iPod’s bring us, and the music that puts us so strongly in that haven.  Basically the ad is saying that it will eliminate all the undesirable things from your day.  You may still be a black silhouette, that dances because you have an iPod, but you are surrounded with bright cheerful colors too.  Let's look at everything that iPod’s have done for our black faceless figures so far.  Not only are you noticed for your iPod, but you are filled with life, so that you go into huge fits of dancing but your black faceless world is now surrounded by bright flashing colors, and loud energetic music, that sounds pretty good right?  Of course it does, because have become bored with realism.  Whether you realize it or not most of the things you watch on T.V., and the movies are a post-modern representation of the world around you.  Everything you watch has been made more exciting than real life, in some way, and that makes people very bored with their own lives.  Almost in the same fashion that music magically plays for the lives of people in music videos, and movies, iPods ad a soundtrack to our own lives, and put us into a post-modern world.  The soundtrack to your life is really the selling point to the iPods in the first place.  Apple has now taken their ads one step farther to really make us believe iPod's sound is larger than life and really outstanding.  In a few newer iPod ad's Apple has called upon the aid of a few different music artists, such as U2(Commercials 5 and 6), Eminem (Commercial 12), and Wynston Marsalis(Commercial 13).  This time Apple has not only asked for their songs, but their bodies as well.  In the newer celebrity filled commercials you'll notice Apple is so nicely lending their signature color to some other objects in the ad.  The first thing you notice is that in the U2 ad the artists microphone cords, and guitar cords are white, and the cords magically disappear into nothingness.  Where those cords are going I have no clue, probably the iTunes corporate headquarters.  All joking aside I can say that it was not strictly artistic that the cords were white and running of to nowhere.  Apple is portraying the idea that artists like U2, are feeding your iPods, or at least iTunes directly.  Another thing you may be asking yourself is why does U2 get to have faces, and yet we, the wearers of the iPods, don't?  Well simply because Apple wants us to believe that iPods form our identities, and most people would like to be a celebrity.  So if we are all faceless black silhouettes, and the people with faces (celebrities) are pumping their identity into iPods, then we better go out and get an iPod.  So you see now we are complete if we have an iPod, put it all together.  We now have bright cheerful colors to surround us, a bright flashy iPod so we get noticed, energetic music, the coolness and appeal of some of the best dancers in the world, and now we even get to be just like Bono, and The Edge, and Eminem.  To tie everything together we've stuck to the color white quite well, which even pushes sales in Apples other products, because that coolness is now all tied to the color white and linked to Apple.  Syntagmatically the white is what ties all the concepts together, just like the main character in a movie that takes you through it, the color white ties all these aspects together.  These ad's have so many different signs that all play a role but without the white it would be different story.  Without the white the dancers no matter how hard they tried could never be able to touch the color that surrounds them, but the iPod can.  The iPod is the dancer’s only link with those bright cheerful colors, and all those appealing aspects that I mentioned before.

Here is an ad featuring one of the silhouetted characters from the commercials.  Syntagmatically the only link the figure has with her bright surroundings is that iPod and its cord.  The only thing she's touching that also touches the color is the iPod.  If you take away her cord you kind of feel bad for the figure.

Now that her cords are gone her link with the happiness around her is gone, take away her iPod, and text and it paints a pretty sad picture.

Now that her iPod, her ear buds, and her text are all gone, the image looks pretty sad, but as I mentioned before we live in the real world and we don't walk around with colorful backdrops all day. The colorful surroundings were something the ads were telling us we were getting from the iPod, so let’s take that away from the girl too.

Now we have been left with a pretty good picture of how Apple most likely wants us to view ourselves, and our lives without their iPods.  As you can see syntagmatics really plays a crucial role here.  I've taken away her iPod, and her ear bud’s that were her only link to her bright surroundings.  I've also taken away her bright surroundings, and even her music!  Now the ad is really kind of sad and depressing.  Even this girls silver jewelry doesn't shine as brightly as that iPod did.  I think the visual display sums it up.  We are all just silhouettes, and Apples iPod can give us the excitement, coolness, energy, surroundings, and sense of identity that we really desire.


Research Questions 

(Research Questions) 

Does Apple do extensive research on chart topping songs?

Does Apple study semiotics of songs they use for video ads?

Is there a semiotic reason for making U2 band members faces visible or was it the bands ego etc...?

What semiotic appeals are there to the silhouetted characters? 

Assignment Option - 1

(Professor George Fowler) 

Dig up a series of advertisements for the same product, and do a semiotic analysis not of the individual ads, but of the entire set of ads. To do this effectively, you will need at least 10 or so related advertisements. A model for this topic might be our in-class analysis of the Silk Cut ads. Hint: It is far easier to produce a good paper when your ads are not merely copies of each other, but differ in ways that enrich the series. So, the Got Milk ads are not going to give you a great deal of material to discuss here, and if you chose to talk about them, you are going to write a dull paper unless you find a very original angle.

Many companies produce series of ads exploiting similar themes. Prominent examples include Absolut vodka, 7-up, Budweiser, Volkswagen, McDonalds, Levis, Nike, Got Milk, Calvin Klein, but there are literally hundreds of others.

If you want to discuss video ads, you certainly may, but you will need to find a way to provide the actual ads to me. This would probably mean that you would have to find the ads on the internet, as taping from TV is very hit and miss.(For example, several years ago we had an excellent term paper contrasting four separate trailers for the latest Star Wars movie about to be released, and the student downloaded these from the net and burned them onto a CD to accompany the term paper.)


(Contents of Research Section are not my own words but the words of sited links) 

Apple iPod silhouette commercials according to wikipedia.


Every silhouette commercial features dark silhouetted characters against bright-colored background. The silhouettes are usually dancing, and in television commercials are backed by up-beat music. The silhouettes are also usually holding iPods and listening to them with Apple's supplied earphones. These distinctively appear in white, so that they stand out against the colored background and black silhouettes.


The original television commercials and posters featured solid black silhouettes against a solid bright color, which usually changed every time the camera angle changed. Some of the television adverts also depicted highlights on the silhouettes using darkened shades of the background color, and shadows on the floor. Since then, various commercials in the campaign have changed the format further:

  • One live action TV commercial made reference to the silhouette theme to emphasize its icon status. It involved a man walking past a set of silhouette posters, which came to life and danced when his iPod was playing, but froze when he paused it.
  • In October 2004, an advert featured U2 performing their single, Vertigo as opposed to people dancing, to promote the release of the iPod U2 Special Edition. Because this edition was not white, iPods did not feature in the advert, but the microphone and guitar leads appeared in white instead. The band and the rest of their equipment were in silhouette, but with particularly clear highlights.
  • The TV commercials for the iPod shuffle used a green background with lighter green arrows moving in the background representing the "shuffle" icon. The silhouettes danced on top of the arrows as if they were a moving floor while listening to iPod shuffles hanging from white lanyards.
  • Following the release of the fifth-generation iPod, two TV commercials, one featuring Eminem and the other Wynton Marsalis, made radical changes to the style, by exchanging the solid changing backgrounds for abstract composite backgrounds based around a main color (orange and blue respectively). The camera shots alternate between the artists performing their songs (Eminem sporting a white microphone, Marsalis' drummer sporting white drumsticks) and traditional silhouette dancers listening to iPods. Apple CEO Steve Jobs has suggested that this more complex composition will be the style of future commercials as well.