A series of distressed smiley faces in a grid in the style of an Andy Warhol collage. The image is a still from Apple's Crush ad manipulated to appear photocopied and then colorized CYMK and RBG using photo editing software. Own work 2024.

Crush, the triumph of the simulacra

What's so upsetting about the iPad ad?

by AK Krajewska

Apple’s "Crush!" commercial nakedly reveals how reality has been replaced by simulacra by uncomfortably laying bare the logic of commodity fetishism. That’s why we[1] hate it, and what makes all the other little hateable things in it feel worse than they should. First, a recap, in case you’re a person from the future, or a person who had better things to do than read internet news last week.

In the iPad "Crush!" video[2], objects used for artistic creation are crushed by a hydraulic press, along with books, records, video games, and toys. The last item to be crushed is a yellow ball with a face. Its eyes tragicomically bulge before popping out along with a splurt of paint as the hydraulic press closes. The press lifts again and reveals an iPad, with no sign of the crushed objects remaining.

A lot of people hated the commercial, hated it so much that Apple apologized for the video within a few days and decided not to run it as a commercial[3]. As one of the haters, I was surprised by how visceral my feelings were, so I started thinking about it, and then, like any normal person, I picked up my collection of books on semiotics to try to make sense of it all.

There is a lot to hate, on reflection, so let me take you on a journey of those things, starting with the most straightforward and emotional and progressing through the increasingly more abstract and conceptual.

Turns out, lamp has feelings #

You might remember the famous Ikea commercial from 2002, Lamp has no feelings[4]. It plays with the tendency that people have to project human emotions onto inanimate objects, leading us to imagine that a discarded lamp feels as sad as the person who is throwing it out would feel in its place. The first part of the commercial has moody lighting and sad music, and plays up the tragic arc of the discarded lamp, which is left out in the rain. Then, in a comic twist, a man walks into frame, and chides the viewers for feeling bad for the old lamp, which, he reminds us, "has no feelings."

Yeah, OK, maybe lamp has no feelings, but people have feelings, and anthropomorphizing objects is a real feeling. We especially tend to anthropomorphize objects with faces on them. All it takes is some googly eyes and a Roomba seems to have a personality. I think the tendency is stronger for some people than for others, and I’m pretty sure I’m on the far end. I get kind of upset when people attach stuffed animals to the outside of their cars because I feel it’s "mean" to the stuffie. Heck, I have trouble eating animal crackers if the animals look too life-like.

When the rubber emoji ball is crushed in the hydraulic press, I feel sorry for it, just because it has a face. It feels like the moment is supposed to be funny, and that only makes me upset. They’re being cruel to the little emoji face guy for laughs!

It’s not just things with faces. People get attached to their tools, and especially the tools they use for creative expression. "Crush!" smooshes a wide variety of things, so if you make any kind of art or music, you probably saw something you use crushed. The guitar hit me the hardest because it looked similar to the first guitar I ever owned, which I bought for $20 or so from a guy selling used guitars by the side of the road when I was 15. A few months later I brought the guitar back to him and bought a new old guitar from him for like $50 with the trade-in. I still have the second guitar! That first guitar taught me that I like to play music, and its relative crappiness and thus cheapness is what made it possible for me to try it out.

It does not make me feel happy to see an image of my childhood guitar crushed.

Some people project emotions less onto the world around them and might not have been upset by the things-with-faces or musical instruments. And people who watch a lot of hydraulic press videos (which is apparently a thing) might have become too desensitized to crushing objects for fun to see anything wrong with smooshing and crushing things per se.

Sensible googly-eyed Roomba non-anthropomorphizers and hydraulic press video enjoyers may be unmoved, and perhaps the people who created and signed off on this video were in that category. Alas, this is only the beginning.

Shameful waste #

A room full of seemingly perfectly functional stuff is destroyed to make the video: a metronome, a guitar, paints, an arcade cabinet, buckets of paint, camera lenses, a record player–it goes on and I don’t have the energy to watch again and list it all. All these things which could have been used to make art are instead destroyed to make a commercial. Creative destruction can be a form of art, and a commercial is a kind of art, but still, it feels like a shameful, extravagant waste.

If we knew a little bit more about the creative process and crushed objects, it might not feel so bad. What if they weren’t even real objects? Reuters coverage of the Ad Age apology referred to the commercial as "an animation of musical instruments and other symbols of creativity being crushed." It looked real to me, but I had to follow up. Reuters stories get syndicated and reported on everywhere so the internet is already full of other articles repeating the same statement. I went back to the Ad Age article to find out what it said[5].

The apology article did not mention anything about how the video was made, nor that it was an animation. But the May 7 article, "Apple flattens a room with an industrial crusher for iPad Pro ad" gave more detail about the production:

"Each shot was practically captured in-camera."

That sounds like they crushed real objects. If the objects were real, knowing where they came from might make it all feel a lot less wasteful, if only Apple bothered to say anything.

For example, the artist Cornelia Parker squashed 54 brass band instruments in a steam press and then she then hung from wires to create "Breathless." At the time the piece was commissioned, there was some controversy about destroying the instruments, implying they could have been used again–but Cornelia Parker specifically purchased a set of instruments that were already slated for disposal. It changes the feeling of the artwork to know the provenance of the flattened instruments.

The official collection listing for "Breathless" at the V&A (where you can still see the piece) explains:

"It is made of 54 defunct brass band instruments which have been squashed flat and hung from wires." (emphasis mine)

However even if the objects in "Crush!" were rescued from the landfill, or Cornelia Parker’s instruments weren’t, there would still be a difference in the symbolic meaning. The flattened instruments are transformed but remain recognizable for what they once were. They become a work of art. The crushed objects in the iPad commercial disappear without a trace.

Now we’re starting to get a bit more symbolic.

Turning art into AI grey goo #

Creative people have been feeling particularly fucked over by the generative AI craze, not just because companies that produce generative AI models have been scooping up visual art and writing to train their models without permission, attribution, or payment and then selling access to models that extrude a uniform paste of artisticness, but also because the artists and writers bosses can’t wait to replace workers with AI artsiness paste.

"Crush" is an entirely too on-the-nose visual metaphor for the process of grinding down human creativity into a product you can sell. And the timing is perfectly terrible. Several responses across the tech press have made the point well, so rather than repeating it all, I’ll just quote a bit from Engadget

A decade ago, this ad likely wouldn’t have been a big deal. But Apple’s marketers completely whiffed on the context of the moment. [...] Its ad serves as a pitch-perfect metaphor for generative AI’s potential to crush human creation, turning us all into "prompt artists" who type words into text boxes to replace their years of training and experience.

In other words, the anger and fear creative people feel about losing their livelihoods because big tech companies appropriated their creative work to train AI is directed at the ad and at Apple.

The shiny simulacrum #

The objects in "Crush" represent both the instruments of artistic production and the means of consuming the arts as mass commodities–for example both a guitar and a record player. We start already at the point Guy Debord describes in The Society of the Spectacle, with the arts and artistic production commodified, and consumed passively as mass market items.

Still, at least the guitar (to keep going with the example) is both a real object and represents an authentic human experience, creating music. It’s one removed from the experience of playing music. The record doesn’t represent playing music, it represents a separate experience which to some extent has replaced it. However, both the guitar and the record player are present–it’s not, at that point, a complete replacement. I’m not going to do a close symbolic reading of every object, because I think just these two will do to get the point across.

When the guitar and record (and everything else) are crushed, nothing of them remains, not even dust. In their place, we see the clean, mass-produced manufactured item, glowing alluringly. The intended obvious commercial meaning is that all the creative power and consumer enjoyment available in the previous objects has been crammed into this beautiful device. But the meaning that is also all too legible now, and it is a meaning which is intrinsically there in the commodification that has to take place to sell you an iPad, is that the iPad has completely replaced the previous means to create and to enjoy artistic works. The originals and even their residue have been destroyed. The iPad doesn’t represent those things, and the things they symbolized. Rather, it is a commodity object that promises a new simulated experience of artisticness, disconnected from history (which has been symbolically smooshed to nothing in the hydraulic press), not relying on relationships with other people, and available in object form, for money.

"It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real." Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard

The iPad is a simulacrum, a copy of something that no longer has an original.

This is thing that is happening, this commercial operation where an object takes on the value of a human relation that was destroyed to enable its production and is sold back to us to fill the void, is not new. Simulacra and Simulation was published in 1981, The Society of the Spectacle in 1967. It’s been happening for quite some time.

It’s just that "Crush" is a very good piece of art that makes a difficult concept viscerally obvious. That’s why it’s so unsettling.

About the header image #

I created the header image by taking a still from Apple's Crush ad, and then manipulated to appear photocopied and then colorized CYMK and RBG using photo editing software. It's a deliberate reference to Andy Warhol's image grids, which are often used to illustrate concepts of simulacra and simulation.

Footnotes #

  1. Me and a lot of opinion-havers on the internet, and maybe you as well. ↩︎

  2. Watch the Apple "Crush" video on YouTube. ↩︎

  3. Apple apologizes for iPad Pro ad that 'missed the mark' by Tim Nudd. Published in Ad Age on May 09, 2024. (Requires a subscription) ↩︎

  4. In 2018, the story of the lamp continued in a follow-up video where the discarded lamp found a new home, like some kind of rescue dog picked up off the street. ↩︎

  5. Which took some doing because Ad Age requires a subscription. I was able to get a limited trial account and read the two articles I needed. ↩︎