A Rhetorical Examination of the Product Keynotes of Steve Jobs

By Alexander E. Hopkins
2012, Vol. 4 No. 09 | pg. 8/9 |

For Jobs, by showing that the iPod mini was “bulky” compared to it's successor, he wanted consumers to abandon the iPod mini because quick-adoption would translate into rapid profits. However, it can be argued that the real reason why Jobs wanted consumers to abandon the mini was because it would lead to a popularity “snowball effect.” This is because more people would follow suit when they see that more people own an iPod Nano.

Generally, once Jobs shows that a product’s predecessor is obsolete, he will answer the next question of why the audience should care: how will this product be an integral to a consumer’s life? While the iPod’s launch in 2001 was met with positive surprise, especially since the iPod was a peripheral device, the MP3 player industry still had many competitors despite it's young age. Since MP3 players shared the common function of playing music files, Jobs had to show that the purchase of an iPod was much more than buying a product: “But the biggest thing about iPod is that it holds a thousand songs. This is a quantum leap because for most people, it's their entire music library. This is huge. How many times have you gone on the road and realized you didn't bring the CD you wanted to listen to? But the coolest thing about iPod is your entire music library fits in your pocket. This was never possible before” (Gallo, 78).

Here, it is evident that Jobs is conjuring up excitement over features that every MP3 player shares in common. He demonstrates this remarkably well when he poses a common question that reflects the frustration of many disaffected consumers: “How many times have you gone on the road and realized you didn't bring the CD you wanted to listen to?”

However, Jobs wanted people to realize that purchasing an Apple MP3 player was different than purchasing any other brand because it was an experience. In other words, rather than just promoting product features, he would “sell the benefits” (Gallo, 80). In addition Apple’s reputation for ease-of-use, he pointed-out two features that make the iPod unique: it's size and capacity. When Jobs showed competing hard-drive-based MP3 players on his keynote slides, he showed unattractive players that were either large or had a small capacity. Upon revealing the iPod, the unique experience that Jobs was selling was that a consumer did not have to sacrifice one or the other. Every consumer that purchases the iPod will have a small, lightweight product that also had a high capacity.

Prior to walking on the stage to deliver a product keynote, Jobs knew that everyone in his audience varied in their knowledge about computer products. Some members could have been “technophiles,” able to understand technical jargon with ease. Conversely, there was a sizeable portion of the audience that was not well-versed in technical language. Jobs’ mission in each of his keynotes was to help the latter group by versing them in the fundamentals of technological terms. Without understanding the technical language, the un-versed audience members would not understand why Jobs believed was selling a superior product.

One of the best examples of Jobs using layman’s language was when he introduced the video features of the fifth-generation iPod in October 2005: “We have a beautiful two-and-a-half inch TFT display. 320 by 240 pixels, so it's very high density. 260,000 colors—the color is fantastic on it. And, most importantly, we support real-time encoding of H.264 video. This is the video standard used in QuickTime 7 and it's adopted as an international standard. It is the best video compression technology on the planet. And the iPod decodes it. Wonderful. As well as MPEG 4. And we have TV-out, so if you want to buy an optional cable, you can hook it up to your TV” (YouTube, 2005).

Jobs used a cadence and rhythm that was slow to emphasize important words and data (Saglimbeni, 2011). At some points, however, the language is highly-technical, such as “TFT,” “pixels,” “H.264 video,” and “MPEG 4.” However, Jobs frames these technical definitions and specifications to show why the audience should care. The definition and/or specification is usually followed by the answer to the question of the audience: “Why should we care?”

Similar to his use of “layman’s language,” Steve Jobs often allowed a new or upgraded product to “speak for itself.” In other words, he would show-off the device to his audience and give them a demo of the product. This was effective for several reasons. First, Jobs could show the physical device to the world up-close. If he wanted to accentuate the device’s light-weight or thinness, this was best done showing the audience. Second, when he operated the device, he could show the audience that the product really was as easy to operate as he rhetorically-portrayed it to be in his keynotes. As a result, Jobs could gain significant credence with the audience because, for a few moments, he would place himself in their situation. He knew that his consumer base was looking for an easy-to-use product that was affordable, durable and stylish.

Perhaps akin to a traveling salesman, Jobs literally brought the Apple Store to the audience. For a few moments, both the audience and Jobs are “transformed” into consumers. When Jobs physically-revealed a new product, he sometimes played the typical consumer in the middle of his keynote, portraying what they would look like if they used the device. His enthusiasm while playing with the product suggested to the audience that they would have just as much fun with the product as Jobs was having.

Likewise, the audience turns into a potential consumer base because they need to be convinced that the product is useful, stylish and affordable. It could be argued that, since much of the audience consisted of V.I.P. guests of several tech media outlets, these audience members were the “pro-tempore” consumers. Since these media outlets would be communicating their observations of the keynote and the new products, Jobs had to convince them to leave a positive impression upon consumers. Needless to say, if these outlets had optimistic impressions of the keynote, they would be more likely to recommend the product to consumers. This, of course, translated to a greater likelihood of critical and financial success for the newly-minted Apple product.

When Jobs launched the original Macintosh computer on January 24, 1984, the timing could not have been better. For starters, Jobs rode on the momentum of Apple’s famous “1984” commercial that was aired on Super Bowl Sunday. Just two days prior to the keynote, millions of viewers across the country were thrust into a dystopian world ruled by a dictatorial machine, a thinly-guised IBM computer. A female Olympic sprinter, representing the Macintosh, hurriedly raced away from the dysfunctional society. In Jobs’ perfect-world, the crumbling society of IBM would become a quickly-fading memory.

Jobs smirked at the audience as he quipped, “Now, we’ve done a lot of talking about Macintosh recently. But today, for the first time ever, I’d like to let Macintosh speak for itself” (YouTube, 1984). He walked over to the side of the stage and quickly pulled a black cover off of the brand-new Macintosh computer. The computer’s screen lit up, displaying a variety of software, including games and art. After the Apple logo flashed across the screen, a computerized-voice remarked: “Hello, I’m Macintosh. It sure is great to get out of that bag. Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking, I’d like to share with you a maxim I thought of the first time I met an IBM mainframe. NEVER TRUST A COMPUTER YOU CAN'T LIFT! Obviously, I can talk, but right now I’d like to sit back and listen. So, it is with considerable pride that I introduce a man who’s been like a father to me…STEVE JOBS” (YouTube, 1984).

By displaying the dialogue on the Mac’s screen, the audience would have this message reinforced in their minds. Although Jobs himself barely, the message was cleverly-displayed, employing audio-visual technology to communicate and maintain Jobs’ assertion that the Macintosh was the most superior computer on the planet. In a sense, this scripted-sequence was meant to show that the Mac was personable, combining the familiar spoken word with a list of surprising, ground-breaking features.

When Jobs unveiled a picture of the iPod Nano on his keynote slide, the stunned audience cheered the arrival of the futuristic technology of MP3 players right in front of their eyes. While Jobs could compare the Nano’s small size with common, everyday products (i.e. older iPods, a deck of cards, a pencil, etc.), he felt that the audience had to actually see the product with their own eyes. In a scene reminiscent of the iPod’s 2001 introduction, Jobs reached into his jeans pocket. However, he teasingly pulled the Nano from the inner pocket and proudly proclaimed: “It is breathtaking. You won’t believe it until you hold it in your hands. A thousand songs. An amazing color display. A clickwheel. It is one of the most amazing products Apple has ever, ever created. A thousand songs in your pocket, impossibly small. It's really small. [Laughter] Let me show you how small this is. This thing is thinner than a number two pencil” (YouTube, 2005).

Unlike the Macintosh’s unveiling twenty-one years prior, the new product did not speak conversationally to the audience. Instead, it spoke in a completely-different language: it’s “breathtaking” appearance. Jobs excitedly demoed the Nano while his demonstration was magnified on the large keynote screen, showing just how easy the device was to use. As he effortlessly-breezed through a long list of music artists and songs, he played a small assortment of tracks. While the top-40 music was playing, the Nano’s screen displayed the current track, artist and album-art in full-color. At the same time, the striking design of the Nano etched itself into the minds of consumers everywhere.

When Jobs first explained a few of the features of the iPad, this came after a swirl of rumors prior to it's January 27 introduction. In some ways, Jobs’ revelation of the actual, physical product put all of the rumors to rest. Jobs proudly remarked: “But we think we’ve got something that is [between a laptop and a smartphone]. And we’d like to show it to you for the first time today. And we call it the iPad. So [audience clapping and cheering], let me show it to you now. This is what it looks like. I happen to have one right here [wolf whistle from an audience member]. That’s what it looks like. Very thin. Looks just like this. So, let’s give you a little overview. It's very thin. You can change the background screen, the home screen, personalize it any way you want. People put their own photos on it, I’m sure. But we ship a few photos pre-loaded on the iPad to] make it any way you want” (YouTube, 2010).

When Jobs gave his audience a quick overview of the iPad, his demonstration of photo backgrounds on the device was critical. Since consumers could use their own photos on the iPad’s home screen, Jobs wanted to rhetorically-exploit this feature because it allowed the public to customize the iPad to meet their unique needs. While the public could already make the iPad “their own” by syncing their favorite media, customizing the background photo made an outward statement to those around them. Similar to a consumer choosing their favorite color for a product, the background photo feature allowed the consumer to show their distinctive tastes. The iPad was likewise unique in that the consumer was not committed to any one photo. They could continually-change the device’s appearance to meet their changing moods and needs.

For much of Jobs’ second-term as Apple CEO from 1997-2011, he was a cultural media icon. This fame inevitably led him to social connections to the music industry, Hollywood and politics, amongst many other social bases. Given that Jobs’ iPod impacted the music industry the most, he gained a solid-base among musicians. When the first iPod was released in 2001, he played a documentary in which musicians Moby, Smash Mouth and Seal gave their insights on how easy the iPod was to use. As the iPod rapidly gained momentum, other artists such as John Mayer, the Rolling Stones, Coldplay and U2, openly “campaigned” for the iPod by appearing at a few of his keynotes.

When U2 released their 2004 album “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb,” Jobs and the band teamed-up to create a special edition U2-themed iPod. This iPod, a variation of the fourth-generation iPod, was all black with a red click-wheel that matched the album cover’s colors. On the back were laser inscriptions of each band member’s signatures. About a month prior to the album’s release, U2 band joined Jobs on the keynote stage. Jobs proudly announced: “We just want to make some innovative products together, and we hope U2 fans will love having their very own special edition iPod” (Apple Press Info, 2004).

Throughout most of the iPod’s product life, very few special-edition models have been available. Likely, this was because Jobs did not like to target a consumer-base that was too specific. However, he appeared to make an exception towards U2 because the band reached one of the largest music bases in the world. The band, which has continually broken concert attendance records, also holds the record for the most Grammy music awards won. If immensely- popular musicians like U2 openly endorse the iPod in general, this would give another incentive for consumers to purchase a U2-themed iPod.

In a similar manner to reaching out to a specific group-base—such as U2 fans—Jobs wanted to have a product lineup that could appeal to the vast-majority of MP3 player consumers. In the MP3 market, there are several types of consumers: users with large music collections, active lifestyles, casual users, users who like to use media applications, and so on. As of this writing, the respective iPods that meets the needs of the aforementioned users would be: iPod classic, iPod shuffle, iPod Nano and iPod touch. While the choices available could appeal to nearly every imaginable MP3 player user, it also served a more implicit goal: competition. By having a lineup that captured most user markets, Apple’s competitors would inevitably face a formidable struggle to capture some of these Apple-dominated categories.

Generally, Jobs will summarize his keynote towards the end. On April 28, 2003, Jobs introduced the third-generation iPod, as well as expanded the variety of capacity choices available. Jobs knew that each user had specific capacity needs for how much music they wanted on their iPods. To this degree, he announced: “We have three new models. The new ten, the new fifteen and the new thirty gigabyte. 2500 songs in your pocket on the ten, 3700 songs on the fifteen and 7500 songs on the thirty. The 15 and the 30 have the dock, case and remote included. You can get this as an accessory for the ten if you want. And $299 for the ten, $399 for the fifteen and $499 for the thirty” (YouTube, 2003).

Up to that point, the only two capacities available for the second-generation iPod were the 10 and 20 gigabyte versions. There were two incentives to buy both the lower-capacity 10 gigabyte model and the higher-capacity 15 and 30 gigabyte versions. First, to make even the existing 10 gigabyte capacity appear appealing, he used the word “new” to describe it. Second, the accessory dock was included for the two higher-capacity models. Whenever Jobs announced a gigabyte capacity for the iPod, he was well-aware that not every consumer was aware of how it would meet their needs. As such, he “translated” this gigabyte capacity into song capacity. In addition, Jobs never pulled any surprises for the device’s prices, as he clearly-announced what it would be selling for at the end of the keynote.

In every one of Jobs’ keynotes, the public was roused to excitement by the time he was wrapping up his keynote. They were excited about the new products, the features they included and how it could change their lives. By the time the product was released, pictures and video footage of packed lines at various retail outlets flooded media outlets. While the availability announcement did not necessarily have to be made at the very end, it did have to be made towards the end.

In October 2005, when Jobs released the fifth-generation iPod classic, he was specific as to the product’s availability. Towards the end of his keynote, he detailed: “And both of these models and both of these colors, we are shipping next week out of our factories. They’re gonna be here in time for the holidays, they’re gonna be here next week and we’re very excited about this” (YouTube, 2005).

Here, Jobs introduced the colors and capacities of the models, as well as when the product would be available. Although he did not specifically announce where the product would be sold, he did not have to. The audience, as well as the general consumer base, had probably seen iPods stocked on the shelves of their favorite electronics retailers. Jobs understood that consumers often wanted to have the product in their hands as soon as possible. By outlining the models available (colors, capacities, etc.), as where they will be sold and when they will be available, Jobs could alleviate the public’s inevitable anxiety waiting for a product to be released. Of course, when the product was depicted exactly like how the consumer purchased it, Jobs’ social credibility increased dramatically.

A month prior, in September 2005, Jobs introduced the first-generation iPod Nano. Given that the Nano was dubbed as the “world’s thinnest MP3 player,” the Nano was naturally a ground-breaking product. As such, many early-adopters of the product would want to buy the iPod Nano as soon as possible. To contain some of this excitement, Jobs announced: “And they are shipping today. We are shipping units as we sit here right now. They will be in stores in many parts of the world by this weekend. They will be in some stores as early as tomorrow afternoon or Friday. And this is what you look for, this is the shipping boxes” (YouTube, 2005).

Jobs knew that, since the iPod Nano would have strong sales during it's first few weeks, Apple would need to have a large inventory. However, given the Nano’s ground-breaking nature, he knew that he would have to ramp-up production. Even though the massive orders for the Nano dictated that they would not be available for purchase the very same day, Jobs ingratiated himself with the audience. By remarking “And they are shipping today. We are shipping units as we sit here right now,” he could help the audience be patient amidst their excitement. Of course, given that Apple almost always delivered on their promises, Jobs’ credibility soared.

Even after Jobs finished delivering his keynote, the message would be “echoed” on to Apple’s publicity campaigns. This had the effect of reinforcing the main key points of the messages contained within Jobs’ keynotes. Early-on during Jobs’ second tenure as CEO (1997-2011), he created the “Think Different” advertising campaign. During an early keynote in 1997, Jobs explained his rationale behind the “Think Different” campaign: “The whole purpose of the ‘Think Different’ campaign was that people had forgotten about what Apple stood for, including the employees. We thought long and hard about how you tell somebody what you stand for, what your values are, and it occurred to us that if you don't know somebody very well, you can ask them, ‘Who are your heroes?’ You can learn a lot about people by hearing who their heroes are. So we said, ‘Okay, we’ll them who our heroes are” (Elliot & Simon, 157).

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