Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Apple Uses Whitman Poem to Sell iPads

Walt Whitman a shill?

What would the poet think about his poem, O Me! O Life! being used by a major corporation to sell its wares? Would it be any different than selling a poem to a 19th century newspaper to curry a wider audience or would he be taking Apple to court?

The great thing about public domain is that anybody can use anything by anyone at any time for any purpose.

But does advertising cross the line? It's one thing for musicians to sell their back catalog to a car company. But poetry? Really?

While the new ad campaign for the iPad Air is not the first time that Apple has used poetry to sell one of its products. It is indeed rare for poetry to be used in advertising disguised as anything other than a jingle.

To be fair, the voice-over in the advert entitled Your Verse is of a scene by Robin Williams from 1989's Dead Poets Society:

We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering — these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love — these are what we stay alive for.

To quote from Whitman,

“O me, O life of the questions of these recurring. 
Of the endless trains of the faithless. Of cities filled with the foolish.

What good amid these, O me, O life?
 Answer: that you are here. That life exists and identity. That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”

“That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”

What will your verse be?

While the ad quotes O Me! O Life! by Walt Whitman (1819-1892) it could just as easily recited the poem in its entirety given the thrust of the ad campaign — Apple has a dedicated website entitled Your Verse that shows customers using iPads in novel ways.

Published in 1865's Leaves of Grass Whitman could not have imagined the future that is our present.

    O Me! O Life!

    Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
    Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities filled with the foolish,
    Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who     more faithless?)
    Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever     renewed,
    Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
    Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
    The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?


    That you are here—that life exists and identity,
    That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

Yet, O Me! O Life! is not the first posthumous use of Whitman's name or poetry in advertising. The practice dates back to the early 20th century where Whitman's name was used to promote a hotel in Camden, New Jersey. While the Whitman Hotel was named to honor a favored son Whitman's name, likeness and poetry has also been used to sell anything from coffee tins to whiskey.

In a television commercial from 2009 a recording of Whitman reciting Pioneers! O Pioneers! was used to sell Levi's. The pervasive use of Whitman's name and poetry in advertising and popular culture was the subject of a comprehensive commentary by Andrew Jewell and Kenneth M. Price for the Walt Whitman Archive.

Perhaps Walt Whitman isn't rolling over in his grave. If his words and name continue to be mentioned more than a century after his passing perhaps Walt Whitman is smiling from the other side, as his words continue to be used to inspire generation after generation...even if its generations of consumers.


  1. great post! while i have watched the ad, i also wondered about its implications. one part of me thought that the poem and its virtues at least got more exposure. but they are going after people who think they will finally write something if they invest in an ipad, which is not true. people who succumb to that ad, consciously or not, will learn that technology does not initiate the creative process. it may aid in one's process, depending upon one's work habits, but not ignite it. people may take photos, but i'm talking about writing a poem, or a 'verse' as whitman calls it.

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