Admittedly, there isn’t much competition. While the small-screen had Don Draper and his fellow Mad Men, films about advertising are thing on the ground. There’s How To Get Ahead In Advertising, in which ad man Richard E. Grant literally grows a second head as he buckles under the pressure of his job, or John Carpenter’s satirical sci-fi They Live, in which advert hoardings hide covert messages of conformity. But for a serious, nuanced look at the industry? Not really.
What’s enthralling about Danny Boyle’s biopic Steve Jobs is the degree to which marketing drives the film. The entire film, bar a few flashbacks, takes place over the course of three product launches, which certainly gives it a different atmosphere than, say, a superhero movie. Aaron Sorkin’s script is essentially a three-act play, each showing Jobs (played by a steely, determined Michael Fassbender) deal with personal and professional obstacles while preparing to show three of his most famous (or infamous) products to the public: respectively, the Apple Mac, the NeXT cube and the iMac.
Jobs’ product launches have become the stuff of legend, so for anybody in marketing, this is manna. While the film never shows any of the actual presentations, we see rehearsals and last-minute panics, the attempts to add drama by switching off the fire exit signage, the showmanship whereby imperfections in the presentation are smoothed over using sleight-of-hand.
Elsewhere, the film highlights how much Jobs was always a master of branding, obsessed with design to the minutest detail. We get explanations here of why, for example, the floppy drive on the Apple Mac was off-centre (to give it a friendly ‘smile’), or why Jobs deliberately made the dimensions of NeXT’s supposedly ‘perfect cube’ wrong (because to the untrained eye, it looks better that way).
It looks better that way, that might be the film’s tagline, since everything here focusses on perception, and specifically what the characters call the ‘reality distortion field’ whereby man becomes myth. At all turns, Sorkin confronts us with the gap between the seamless perfection of the brand(s) and the agitated, pell-mell behaviour that go into them. Sorkin renders Jobs as a ‘poorly made’ counterpoint to his legend, denying the parentage of his daughter or lambasting the talented colleagues on whom his reputation has been built.
Questioned as to what he does, he didn’t produce the code, he didn’t design the products, so what exactly does he contribute? Jobs compares himself to a conductor: “I play the orchestra.” It’s a funny line, but telling, because people often ask marketers what they do. Many would probably give the same answer.
Marketing, after all, is a role that is half-creative, half-managerial, assessing the resources available and packaging a brand, product or service in such a way as to maximise awareness and generate positive coverage, while simultaneously deflecting any adverse conditions. There’s another line here about a marketer’s role being managing expectations, which just about sums it up.
So the film is a dance between form and function, and the difficult decisions that have to be made to balance the two, a modern-day version of the famous dictum (from 1962 Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) that when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
From a marketer’s point of view, there are huge pleasures everywhere. Consider the performance of Kate Winslet as Jobs’ permanently stressed head of PR. It’s a brilliant depiction of plate-juggling, as Winslet constantly tries to keep crises at bay by handling her client with a blend of schoolmarm-ish severity and touchy-feely ego-massage, without ever tipping into the common cliche of the air-brained PR practitioner (exemplified in recent years by Jessica Hynes’ performances as Perfect Curve consultant Siobhan Sharpe in TV comedies Twenty Twelve and W1A). There’s one scene in particular that must bring back nightmares for many PR people: Winslet is trying to give a journalist the official line, only for the mischievous Jobs to blurt out an unseemly truth about his product.
Yet the film’s stand-out scene is an argument between Jobs and Apple CEO John Scully, about which is the best way to get a message across. Jobs believes in the artistic, aspirational quality of something like Ridley Scott’s iconic 1984 ad for the Apple Mac, which inevitably makes a cameo appearance here. But Scully, a corporate man who previously worked for Pepsi, favours the ‘Ronseal’ approach of showing the product in all its glory. What’s the point of an ad if nobody knows what it’s selling?
Both are right, of course; they’re just selling different things. Scully has a product-led mindset, whereas Jobs had an evangelical passion for changing people’s minds. By the time of the iMac, Jobs has proved his advertising brio with the ‘Think Different’ campaign, paving the way for the lifestyle marketing and a world in which John Lewis and Sainsbury’s can colonise hearts and minds without their Christmas ads ever stepping inside a store.
That the film can resonate in this way demonstrates how well it depicts the cultural shifts in marketing that Jobs pioneered. As a film, it is enthralling enough: a two-hour thrill of great actors having manic arguments, directed by Boyle with restless energy. But listen to what the characters are arguing about, and Steve Jobs earns its spurs as probably the finest film ever made about marketing.