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  • Immaterial Thoughts: Brand Value, Environmental Sustainability, and WALL-E
  • Maria Bose (bio)

Just before Earth Day 2014, Apple released Better, a short film outlining the company’s new environmental responsibility campaign. In Better, a placid sun rises over a glistening field of solar panels (figures 1 and 2). Next, the camera cuts to an Apple engineering lab: from the smooth reflective surfaces of the solar panels to the immaculate screens of iPhones and iPads (figure 3). “Better,” narrates Apple’s CEO Tim Cook, “It’s a powerful word and a powerful ideal. It makes us look at the world and want more than anything to change it for the better. To innovate, improve, to reinvent. To make it better.”1 Later, we are moved from Apple showrooms, filled with stately plastic and aluminum products, to groves of oaks swaying in the wind and colonies of ants atop an anthill. Midway through the film, a hand places an iPhone in its now less-wasteful container. An engineer strides purposefully between rows of solar panels. Knotty roots are juxtaposed with multicolored electrical cables, wind turbines with circuitboards. Finally, thunder cracks and the panels are drenched in a luxuriant rain, which soon abates in order for the sun to rise again. “We have a long way to go,” concludes Cook, “and a lot to learn. But now, more than ever, we will work to leave the world better than we found it. And make the tools that inspire others to do the same.”

It is hard to miss the visual homology that Better constructs between the screens of solar panels and those of Apple’s products. But what makes Better an instructive response to the current ecological crisis rather than simply another exercise in green branding is neither this homology nor the film’s aestheticization of physical environment. Instead, Better exceeds typical green strategies by working to construct Apple’s brand equity as an optic through which environment might, first, be apprehended and, ultimately, disavowed. As we will see, Better borrows this approach from Apple’s onetime affiliate Pixar, whose greenest and most environmentally symptomatic film WALL-E (2008; WALL-E: Waste Allocation [End Page 247] Load Lifter, Earth-class) is this essay’s primary subject. Arguably more pronounced in Better’s visual rhetoric, however, is the attempt to manage the perception of physical environment by using the Apple brand to circumscribe the visual field, something the film accomplishes by figuring Apple’s logo—an apple missing a single bite—in the viewer’s simultaneous access to and protection from environment.

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Figure 1.

Betting on the Future? Buy Apple.

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Figure 2.

Apple Solar Farm in Maiden, North Carolina.

Understood in this way, we notice that Better’s most significant visual motif is not the studied homology between solar panels and iPads but rather a more nuanced riff on Apple’s trademark apple: a circle. [End Page 248] Articulating the camera’s field of vision, the circle first appears in the sun’s reflection on the panels, only to recur throughout the film: the cylindrical shell of Apple’s new Mac Pro frames our view of the engineering lab (figure 4); the blades of a wind turbine are circular, not elliptical; the camera cuts from the circular cable opening of the iMac display stand to the circular opening of a windsock through which we glimpse the solar panels (figures 5 and 6); a large and prominent halo encircles the sun in a closing image; and two small, circular dust motes trail to the right of the Apple logo in the final shot (figures 7 and 8).

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Figure 3.

iPad Flex Test.

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Figure 4.

Mac Pro Hardware.

[End Page 249]

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Figure 5.

iMac Stand.

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Figure 6.

Through a Circle, Sustainably.

Serving as an aperture into the film’s key sites of production (the Apple laboratory, the field of solar panels, and the sun), Better registers the circle as the camera’s decisive point...


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pp. 247-277
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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