Going Comprehensive: MCI, “This Is Now” (1996) and Apple, “Bulbs” (2016)

At any given time there may or may not be a current TV ad that dares to comprehend the whole American or even human experience in 60 seconds. It’s obvious when the attempt is being made because of the extraordinary richness of references.  Lately it’s Apple, in the “Bulbs” ad for the new MacBook Pro.

Any of these ads deserves book-length treatment to come to terms with what they include (and don’t), how they portray it, and how they make it work.

Let’s start with “This Is Now – This Is How” from that golden mid-90’s period when MCI (an upstart AT&T challenger – where are they now?)  made its strong bid to take over the national imaginary. A calm, slightly presumptuous voice – not quite a wise guy – tells us:

This isn’t about why your business has to communicate better or why the time is ripe to put all the new technology to work. We’re past that stage.

MCI 1996

Notice the charming moment at 0:12 where an unbusinesslike and utterly artificial image of a heavy tomato enthroned in dark soil illustrates the notion of a ripe time. It’s a signal that these people will throw in anything to tease and delight the mind receiving their message. If you’re in the mood (and the rest of the ad will strongly encourage this mood), you can take it as a signal that everything really is relevant to everything else, and in a budding healthy way.

This is about putting laptops on desks, and pagers in pockets. It’s about email and the Internet. It’s about a person who puts it all together, and a company that can give you the hardware and software you need.

The extraordinary editing pace — aggressively fast at times, aggressively irregular altogether — begins to make an impression greater than any single shot. It spurts and glides. Even as it smartly alternates realities with metaphors conceptually, it alternates horizontal and vertical motions visually. You feel that all possibilities are being explored. Strangely, the intensity of all of this happening so fast in such a brief time makes you feel that the exploration is thorough and rigorous. The apparent inclusiveness boxes you in. MCI wants you to sync up with its operational Present, its own regime of what is Actually Happening, and in the creative ferment of the ad’s montage it can further this program even with zany tokens of un-Present things (starting at 0:29): a David Lynchian robin, a Flash Gordon calamity,[1] a self-rocking rocking chair.

This isn’t about blue sky, or sci-fi, or bye-the-bye. This is about now, and about how.

The ad doesn’t try to cover everything you do; it covers the various ways in which you relate to your world — fantasy, hope, and memory as well as realistic perception.

Twenty years later, the MCI ad has become a technological nostalgia piece for its content (pagers and pay phones!). But in its strategy and style it exudes a classic confidence in Going Comprehensive.

Here’s another great one with a stunningly radical and therefore universal social message, “There Are Only Minds”:

MCI 1997

Now consider Apple’s “Bulbs,” a quick yet picturesque tour of modern technological advance culminating in the new MacBook Pro. The montage is not a brain spasm of things coming together like we experience in the MCI ads; it’s more about forward motion and delineating segments of history. What is the ultimate message, or impression? I would say: In general, we’re blowing the place up. In particular, buy the new MacBook Pro today so you can blow it up tomorrow.


[1]  I have no idea if this is a real Flash Gordon clip, but I looked up the space ships to make sure it was Flash Gordon and not Buck Rogers.

About Steve Smith

Emeritus Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies at Millsaps College
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