China is changing. Apple is changing. And with that, Apple’s depiction of China is changing.
On May 1 Apple released an advertisement titled “The City,” on YouTube. The advertisement features a young Chinese couple taking photos (using the iPhone 7 Plus’s touted “portrait mode”) as they eat noodles, visit the aquarium, and wander the streets of Shanghai. The voice of Karen O of the Brooklyn band the Yeah Yeah Yeahs plays in the background, and in the end, the text “focus on what you love” appears on screen.
It’s a markedly different approach than two previous Apple ads featuring China. “The City” highlights Shanghai’s cosmopolitanism and appears to be aimed at an audience of global citizens wherever they are—it’s part of a broader campaign that has included an AirPods ad shot in Mexico City, and a Portrait Mode ad shot in Spain. The two earlier China ads, though, carefully highlighted themes for a different kind of Chinese viewer.
Apple’s first TV spot for China, titled “The Old Record” in English, arrived in 2015. It’s an adaptation of Apple’s 2014 Christmas-themed advertisement, but with Chinese flourishes. In it, a young Chinese woman digitizes a vinyl recording of an old Chinese pop song (“Forever Smiling” by Pan Dihua, popular in the 1960s) as a gift to her grandmother. The set consists of a old Shanghai alleyway and a dusty apartment that looks nothing like the the modern flats most Chinese iPhone owners live in. Apple published the ad in time for Chinese New Year.
Its second Chinese spot, released last year during Chinese New Year, featured pop musicians—Li Zongsheng, Li Jianqing, and Bai An—recording a New Year tune over an iPad. The ad was stylized much like a music video, with Chinese lyrics to the song appearing at the bottom of the screen.
By comparison, Apple’s new “The City” ad takes a very different direction. It treats China as a motif for global hipsterdom, one equally relatable to jetsetting foreigners watching it on YouTube, and the Chinese with enough money and leisure time to frolic around with an iPhone.
What explains the change in direction? It’s possible Apple found that its target Chinese customers relate more to the urban playground Shanghai of “The City” than the Shanghai depicted in ”The Old Song.” While carrier subsidies help make the iPhone more affordable for the average Chinese person, the country’s smartphone market is largely dominated by low and mid-tier Android devices. Consumers that can comfortably afford an iPhone are likely just as steeped in international pop culture and indie US bands as they are in Chinese pop culture.
Overseas brands and production studios are also sensing that the Chinese feel pandered to when they see movies peppered with not-so-subtle nods to Chinese culture. The Great Wall, for example, a Hollywood-China co-production that pits Matt Damon alongside a Chinese cast in an action film filled with historical references, got trashed by Chinese film critics. One common critique from reviewers was that references to Chinese culture felt forced and insincere.
Apple is in a very different position in China now than it was two years ago. After a monster reception for the iPhone 6 series, the company has suffered negative sales growth in the country for five quarters in a row. The slump appears likely to continue for the at least rest of the year, as most Chinese consumers who wanted to buy an iPhone now already have one. Unless the iPhone 8 contains noticeable improvements on the iPhone 7, many consumers will likely hold off replacing their still-functional old devices. And those that will buy a new phone are more likely to have Karen O in their iTunes than Pan Dihua.