Spike Jonze just made the greatest higher education ad of all time…for Apple

Spike Jonze, one of the great American directors, just created the greatest higher education ad of all time…for Apple.

If you haven’t seen this spot yet, get ready for the best 4 minutes of your day.

This ad for Apple’s Siri-directed home speaker, HomePod, was sensationally directed with stunning production values. But there is SO much more depth going on here from a messaging standpoint we almost NEVER see in advertising.

And to understand what’s happening here, we need to quickly revisit an American psychologist named Abraham Maslow.

Marketing according to Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs”

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theorizes that people focus on their most immediate needs; food, clothing, shelter, security, etc. before considering higher-level aspirations or luxuries. So most technology and higher education brands ignore these lower tiers completely and plant their messaging efforts firmly at the very top of Maslow’s pyramid.

Yet, Spike Jonze rightfully understands that in 2018, technology is neither a luxury or an aspiration, but a necessity. Likewise in 2018, college is a near necessity for the majority of Americans – one that can provide both physiological relief and security.

We all understand this.

Yet our soaring higher education messaging exclusively calls for students to realize their largest dreams, and rarely to escape their current nightmares.

We start too late in the story.

We speak to the outcome. But we rarely start where they feel.



In this ad, we meet a well-dressed woman with a seemingly decent job living in a major metropolitan city.

Her most critical needs are met.

And yet, we get to this critical moment in the spot where she faces herself in the mirror. She hates what she sees. And she swipes left on herself.

She swipes left on HERSELF, folks

This is gut-wrenching. This is heartbreaking.

She says no…to herself. She says no to her current station in life. She says no to the circumstances she feels trapped in.

And yet, when the mirror beckons her to take another look, she looks deeper.

She sees a glimpse of her true self. She sees what’s possible. And she is able to separate her circumstance from her self-worth and step into the adventure she knows is still beating deep down inside her.

This is a critical part of Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” that every student takes. But as higher ed marketers, this a story arc we often step into far too late.

Creating this “Hero’s Journey” in higher ed

When we create our higher ed messaging hierarchy, we often start at the high-kick.

We shout aspirational platitudes of becoming and achieving. We speak to what is possible, and the promise of outcomes that lie ahead.

But this is never where the student starts. Our students often start in a place of fear. Fear they can’t do it. Fear they can’t afford it. Fear of what their life and family will look like – both if they do make the sacrifice, and if they won’t.

We’re starting too late in the story.

We’re waiting for the student to see their true self in the mirror. But we need to help them do that. We need to address their fears full on, not pretend they don’t exist.

We may not have a multi-million dollar budget to make our TV spot. We may not always have 4 minutes of captivated attention to tell this narrative arc.

But this is the very story higher ed needs to get better at telling. And Spike Jonze just gave us all a great idea of what it could look like.

Eric Olsen

Eric brings more than a decade of award-winning creative brand development, marketing analytics and higher education experience to Helix Education. Eric is a graduate of Bradley University and earned his MBA at Lewis University.