Google, Apple and Bob Dylan

I had a short discussion on Twitter this morning — I’d link to it, if Twitter had thread permalinks — sparked by Danielle’s tweet, in which she calls bullshit on Gawker’s article on the new Google Instant commercial, in which Ryan Tate (who has had a brush with Jobs earlier this year, and with whom I don’t agree in the slightest with regards to the iPad) asserts that regardless its intentions, this is one ad Steve Jobs will hate:

I’m with Ryan Tate on this. Not only is this ad unusual for Google, which even when it gets imaginative, is obviously an engineers club, not a poets society (with exceptions). And while the Google Instant commercial still sacrifices actual charm and humanity for a factual message — contrary to Think Different — since both companies operate in the tech industry, the very use of Dylan, intentionally or not, is absolutely comparable.

Think Different was a major milestone for Apple. Aside from building Apple’s current image, it marked Steve Jobs’ return and in many ways the start of what we now know as Apple. It was a campaign that was not only tremendously important to Apple as a company, but it was very personal to Steve Jobs:

But his well-known relationship with Bob Dylan goes way back, to well before his return to Apple. Here in the 2003 Rolling Stone interview:

Steve Wozniak turned me on to [Bob Dylan]. I was probably … oh … maybe 13, 14. We ended up meeting this guy who had every bootleg tape in the world. He was a guy that actually put out a newsletter on Bob Dylan. He was really into it — his whole life was about Bob Dylan. But he had the best bootlegs — even better stuff than you can get today that’s been released. He had amazing stuff. And so we had our room full of tapes of Bob Dylan that we copied. #

In fact, I think Steve Jobs probably sees a lot of himself in Dylan:

He was a very clear thinker, and he was a poet.

Or maybe that’s just me projecting… Either way, here’s the opening of the 1984 shareholders meeting where he first revealed the Macintosh:

Here’s Bob Dylan in an iPod commercial:

And the list goes on.

This isn’t about Dylan, and whether or not he’s willing to do commercials or not (Danielle brought up Victoria’s Secret and Pepsi as examples), this is about the iconography that he brings with him, when used in specific contexts.

Google’s commercials have most often been about the product. Whether it’s fast, secure, easy to use and so on. Google is a very fact-centric company, by heart. I love Google, but they have for a long time been an image-challenged company, and have only in recent years started to do commercials at all, let alone ones that convey more than facts.

Apple on the other hand is a counter-cultural company; radical in a way. For a long time that’s been the defining trait of Apple’s brand and the way Steve Jobs saw himself and his products in relation to the rest of the tech industry. And few companies, in particular a company like Google, are driven so much by the personality of the CEO as Apple has been.

And that’s why it tastes a little bit funny when another tech giant, in direct competition with Apple, puts out a — for them — atypical commercial using imagery, which filtered through a post-Think Different world, will always be associated with Apple and Steve Jobs (the two being virtually inseparable).

Whether the radical counter-cultural underdog image is still sticking to Apple these days, is another discussion entirely, but to put it in context, Google using black and white Bob Dylan imagery is a little like 1980’s Coke using Michael Jackson.

It would be a lot of things. A coincidence wouldn’t be one of them.