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The iPod May Be Dead, But Those Iconic Ads Still Shape The Way We See Music

Drake's 'Hotline Bling' video is just one example of the enduring influence of the 'silhouette' campaign.

The very first iPod commercial lunged for the throats of geeks everywhere. In the minute-long clip from 2001, a guy in glasses, khakis, and a short-sleeve button-up plays a song by the Propellerheads with a program called iTunes on his iBook. He drops the track onto a brand new device called an iPod through a brand new Firewire cable. He dances out of his apartment with earbuds in, his listening seamless and unbroken, free to dork out in the open world.

That was fifteen years ago, and the iPod wasn’t yet omnipresent. Its clickwheel and square screen hadn’t yet become the universal signifier of “mp3 player”; those white earbuds weren’t yet a universal symbol of cool. It was still a product for people who loved computers -- who loved Apple, specifically; the company's ads honed in on its tech, not its capacity for cultural weight. The first round of billboard ads for the iPod depicted close-ups of the device itself, sitting alone on a white surface -- no users in sight.

Today, the iPod’s a fossil, a remnant of a period where hard data storage was valuable and you could show off your pocket music library to your friends, listening together with a headphone splitter. But for almost a decade, it represented the buzzing overlap between technology and culture, a product so salient the images of its advertising persist even in its obsolescence.

The ad campaign that launched the iPod out of the geek quadrant and into the mainstream was designed in 2003, two years after the player’s original release. Susan Alinsangan, art director of the advertising agency TBWA/Chiat/Day, presented Steve Jobs with mockups of billboard ads that would go on to become iconic: black figures silhouetted against colorful backgrounds, white iPods in hand, white headphones trailing to their ears, dancing.

At first, Jobs didn’t like them. “It doesn’t show the product,” he said, according to Walter Isaacson’s biography. “It doesn’t say what it is.” The TBWA/Chiat/Day team managed to placate Jobs by adding the tagline “1,000 songs in your pocket." They struck a deal, the campaign went live in September 2003, and soon enough, Jobs was taking credit for the whole thing.

The silhouette ads would color urban spaces for most of the millennium’s first decade. They’d even inspire the colors of the iPod mini, which saw a 2004 release in yellow, pink, cyan, and green. The iPod and its clean, white lines saturated and then dominated the personal music player market, setting the stage for its cellular progeny iPhone and transforming Apple from a tech company into an all-consuming lifestyle brand.

How did such a simple image manage to do so much? Apple had run successful ad campaigns before (the “Think Different” spots paired the brand with famous thinkers in a way that would raise some eyebrows in this millennium), but it hadn’t steamrollered the competition like this. Alinsangan had tapped into something bigger than selling mp3 players; she built a visual language that said cutting-edge music technology wasn’t just for geeks.

Jobs took credit for Alinsangan’s vision, but he probably would never have thought of those ads himself. He wielded his own image as a brand, dressing the same for what seemed like decades, but in a completely different way: His power as an image lay in his individuality, in the idea of genius confined to just one person with a lot of great ideas.

Alinsangan’s advertisements communicated a different kind of genius, one antithetical to the “Think Different” campaign. They weren’t about fame or money or individual power, but about how music animates people as a collective.

Turning human figures into silhouettes anonymizes them, but it also universalizes them. The silhouette campaign didn’t show specific, individual people listening to the iPod; it showed how they moved when they heard music that they could take with them everywhere. Alinsangan borrowed a technique employed by a wide range of artists, from Disney animators in the introduction to the 1940 film Fantasia (which silhouettes orchestra players against brightly colored backgrounds, inducing the viewer into a synesthetic dream space) to contemporary artist Kara Walker, who uses black silhouettes to overlay histories of racial violence with folklore and myth.

It’s a powerful tool, to turn people into outlines, to remove all defining characteristics beyond shape and pose. The people in the silhouette ads could be anybody. They could be you. Many of them were coded female and black, opening the ads up to identification with people historically outside music technology’s target demographic. The iPod wasn’t for nerds because these ads weren’t about the product — they were about how the product made you move.

Echoes of Apple’s billboards and TV spots still reverberate in music media (as distributed now by Apple’s streaming platform, which has eclipsed the mp3 marketplace in terms of usefulness). Animal Collective’s 2009 “My Girls” video turns the band into celestial voids playing in a psychedelic color field. Drake dances against glowing blocks of color in the “Hotline Bling” visual. The dancers in Sia’s “Cheap Thrills” video slip in and out of shadow, while Tegan and Sara’s “Boyfriend” flashes cyan, yellow, pink, and green behind silhouetted figures.

The iPod and its kin are dead forever, while Apple has reverted to using celebrity power to sell Apple Music subscriptions (when you’re selling access to music instead of music itself, it helps to have Taylor Swift on your team so you can paint a streaming service as a VIP pass). But the crater left by Apple's massive iPod ad campaign still shapes the cultural consensus on what music is — and more importantly, who it’s for.