Noisy Water Review

A Rotten Apple? A Rhetorical Analysis
of the 2008 MacBook Commercial

Jessica R. Fletcher, Tiffany R. Holden, Ariana S. Rayment, and Merrick Parnell

This article has been condensed significantly for the Internet.


This paper presents a rhetorical analysis of a 2008 commercial produced by Apple, Inc. Through the lenses of Symbolic Convergence theory and semiotics, we analyzed the following research questions: what fantasy is presented, and to create what fantasy chain? What semiotic features provide conditions for subconscious consent? The concept of greenwashing is also introduced and applied to the rest of the analyses, providing a theme and the largest research question: how are the rhetorical techniques implicit in the commercial evidence for or against the claim that Apple is greenwashing the viewer?

The consumer-provider relationship is the structure for the fantasy of ‘being green’. The semiotics of the text supply implicit assent to the explicit claims—the words the narrator is saying--, not urging thorough analysis of claims, but rather an acceptance of them as fact.  In the end, the verdict must be clear: based on the shared fantasy and the symbolism, in this text, Apple is either absolutely greenwashing the viewer or it is not.

Keywords: symbolic convergence, semiotics, greenwashing


The Artifact

The commercial portrays Apple’s effort to develop an eco-friendly image. It has the 2008 MacBook Pro as its centerpiece, placed in an all-white background. Every aspect of the new MacBook is shown because it continuously rotates, without showing the audience the cause of the rotation. During these rotations, animated green icons appear above the MacBook to illustrate the narrator’s descriptions: an arrow, light bulb, chemistry beakers, and the earth. The commercial discloses to the audience Apple’s claims that the new line of MacBooks is “the world’s greenest family of notebooks” (Jared Best, 2008).

The air date of this specific MacBook commercial is unknown. However, there are circumstantial facts narrowing the field of possibilities to just under a month and a half. Matt Peckham of Time magazine writes of the “Unibody MacBook Pro,” a 2008 development (2012 June 12). He writes “during a ‘special event’ held October 14, 2008, at company headquarters in Cupertino, Steve Jobs unveiled a significantly redesigned MacBook Pro” (Peckham, June 12, 2012).  The article identifies it as a notebook “carved from a single block of aluminum” (Peckham, 2012). A video embedded into the article shows Steve Jobs introducing the computer’s environmentally friendly features as part of his keynote address. He lists 6 “green” characteristics of the new MacBook: arsenic-free, Brominated Flame Retardants-free, PVC-free system, 37% smaller packaging, and two features mentioned in the commercial itself: that it is free of mercury and highly recyclable (Peckham, 2012). In the video, he announces the new notebook, and the commercial itself was posted on YouTube on November 24, 2008 (Jared Best, November 24, 2008). This new MacBook Jobs talked about is certainly the object of this commercial.

The MacBook Green

The 2008 MacBook Pro is claimed to be more energy efficient and more likely to be recycled than previous laptops. The commercial states, “its advanced aluminum and glass enclosure is completely recyclable” (Jared Best, 2008). This feature reduces waste, which reduces the user’s carbon footprint. The quality aluminum and arsenic-free glass can be used by other recyclers to make new products. Although not mentioned in the commercial, the computer is also made with polycarbonate, a lightweight plastic used to make things like compact discs and sunglass lenses. Polycarbonate is also the top choice for greenhouse coverings, another environmentally friendly element (Shah, 2009).

The commercial also claims that the MacBook is, “…engineered to be so efficient, it runs on a quarter of the power of a single light bulb” (Jared Best, 2008). This reduced amount of power needed to charge the laptop leads to fewer greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. It also reduces consumers’ energy bills because they are not using as much electricity. In addition, the commercial declares that “[the new MacBook] is made without many of the harmful toxins found in other computers, like mercury” (Jared Best, 2008).

The National Advertising Division (NAD) of the Council of Better Business Bureaus evaluated these MacBooks based on the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT) rating, which is used to compare computers based on their environmental impact. They discovered that Apple had high EPEAT ratings compared to other notebooks, and according to the NAD, Apple declared that they would “…only produce computer notebooks that meet the highest EPEAT ratings” (Shah, 2009). The NAD later discovered that other laptop companies had higher EPEAT ratings, but Apple never stated whether or not it would make changes to improve (Shah, 2009).

Apple was ranked higher than other companies such as Dell, in Greenpeace’s ranking of green electronics and was praised for its effort to make more environmentally friendly computers. However, Sarah Westervelt, a spokeswoman for the Basel Action Network, explained that it is impossible for a laptop to be completely “green” because the batteries used will have chemicals, such as cadmium, that could be harmful to health, and they will still contain dangerous toxins like lead (Shah, 2009).

Research Questions

Under the lenses of Michel Foucault’s concepts of biopower and panoptism, Ernest Bormann’s Symbolic Convergence theory, and Peirce’s semiotic triad, the following research questions were presented and analyzed: what fantasy is presented in the commercial, with the hopes of creating what fantasy chain? What semiotic features undergird the stated claims with psychological assent in the mind of the viewer? Where is power exercised in the exchange? The concept of greenwashing is also introduced and applied to the rest of the analyses, providing a structural backbone and the largest research question: How are the rhetorical techniques implicit in the commercial evidence for or against the claim that Apple is greenwashing the viewer?

Literature Review

Symbolic Convergence Theory

Ernest Bormann and his students at the University of Minnesota developed symbolic convergence theory (SCT) in the early 1970s. They were influenced by Robert Bales’s observations of small group interactions. Bales noticed that students working together to accomplish a common goal would comment about people or events which were not physically present within the group (Kuypers & King 2001, p. 212-213). He called these comments ‘fantasies’, which are essentially small stories or jokes that contain or disclose emotion. They can comprise of events from a group members past or future. For example, a group member might make a remark about what they are doing after work, or what they have planned for the weekend. The member’s statement might cause a response from the rest of the group.

Bormann and his students used Bales’ observation of group interaction as their foundation for symbolic convergence theory (Baldwin, Perry, & Moffitt, 2004). The theory suggests that “members in a group must exchange fantasies in order to form a cohesive group” (Young, 1998). People reveal fantasies in small group situations because they can take the environment from awkward to comfortable by allowing group members to express their personal opinions. This is beneficial because sharing fantasies helps to establish common ground, which leads to group cohesion. Fantasies are not just limited to interpersonal interactions, as explained in an article in Simile that tied fantasy theory with virtual relationships when it looked at online discussion boards following the death of a well-known figure (Greer 2008).

According to symbolic convergence theory, the act of sharing fantasies can lead to what it known as a ‘fantasy chain’. A fantasy chain is a positive or energetic reaction to the initial fantasy. This positive response is what establishes common ground between group members, which then leads to group cohesion. A single fantasy chain will not produce absolute cohesion within a group, because some group members might not be able to relate to the first few fantasies expressed, and thus can’t participate right away. It takes numerous fantasy chains to form complete cohesion, and thus it takes time for group members to establish a comfortable environment amongst each other (Young, 1998).

After a number of fantasy chains take place and common ground is established, members begin to relate to one another and group cohesion occurs. When members of a group share the same fantasy, it is evident that they have experienced the same emotion, celebrated specific actions as worthy, and have understood a common experience in the same way (Hirokawa & Poole, 1996). When group members share these experiences, a fantasy theme has been created. According to theorists Baldwin, Perry, and Moffitt, “[a] fantasy theme is a creative and imaginative interpretation of events that fulfills a psychological or rhetorical need” (2004). In other words, fantasy themes are topics of conversation that everyone can relate to. When every group member can respond and interact, the environment becomes more comfortable. Fantasy themes are component parts of rhetorical vision. A rhetorical vision is a complex drama, which unifies people in a common symbolic reality (Wells, 1996). As people share fantasies and various fantasy themes join together, rhetorical vision is created.


In a lecture to his students, Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure said, “A science that studies the life of signs within society is conceivable; it would be part of social psychology and consequently of general psychology; I shall call it semiology” (Saussure in Leitch et. al, 2010, emphasis Leitch’s). Although not a formalized system of ideas and established structures based on a common underlying ideology, the theory of semiology is nonetheless useful for explaining meaning in an artifact.

In his book Semiotics: The Basics, Daniel Chandler presents semiology, often known as semiotics, as it is widely considered: the product of two researchers’ consecutive but independent work (Chandler 2002, p. 6). Saussure (1857-1913) and Charles Peirce, an American philosopher (1839-1914), each developed a methodology to explain the relationship between concepts and the pictures and words used to express them (Chandler 2002, pp. 5-6).

Saussure presented a dyadic model of this concept. He labeled his two sections the signified and the signifier; the signified is the referent itself, and the signified is the “sound pattern” we use to connect to an idea of the referent (Chandler 2002, pp. 18-19). Peirce’s model, however, was three-part. He proposed a representamen: what the sign looks like, which may or may not be material; an object: the actual concept that the sign refers to; and an interpretant: the connection the receiver makes, or how the receiver understands the sign (Chandler 2002, pp. 32-33). Chandler provides an example of this triadic model, explaining that in a traffic intersection, a red light (the representamen) causes the effect of stopped cars (the object) because of a trained belief (the interpretant) of what a red light (the representamen) means (2002, p. 33).

However, signs don’t apply the same way in every situation (Chandler 2002, p. 147). They require a larger code, “a set of practices familiar to users of the medium operating within a broad cultural framework” to provide a context for analysis (2002, p. 148). Chandler presents several categories of codes: social codes like paralanguage, commodity codes, and behavioral codes; textual codes, which include mathematics, aesthetics, rhetoric, and mass media; and interpretative codes that refer to perceptions and ideologies (2002, p. 149).

Semiotics doesn’t just belong with communication, psychology, or linguistics alone. It also involves and thus is involved in philosophy, anthropology, sociology, and media, literary, and aesthetic theories (Chandler 2002, p. 2).


Greenwashing, a portmanteau of ‘green’ and ‘whitewashing’ (Costanzo 2009, p. 30), is “disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image, where disinformation refers to deliberately misleading information” (Montiel & Ramus in Walker & Wan, 2012, p.231). When a company participates in greenwashing their aim is to convince the consumer that the company is environmentally friendly. While the company does this, it also makes an effort to influence the consumer’s purchase behavior. Hence, it directs consumers’ attention towards the positive consequences of purchase behavior because the consumer feels their purchase is positive towards the environment (Cherian & Jacob, 2012, p. 126). When a company uses greenwashing as a communication tactic they are simultaneously engaging in two types of behaviors: one is harmful—“poor environmental performance”—and the other is deceitful—“positive communication about its environmental performance” (Walker & Wan, 2012). Greenwashing can be seen as a rhetorical tool in advertisements and campaigns. When a firm participates in greenwashing, they attempt to “represent their bad environmental performance in a positive light” (Walker & Wan, 2012).

Many corporations in the United States can be accused of greenwashing. In the spring of 2007, TerraChoice (“The six sins of greenwashing” 2007) conducted a survey of six category-leading big box stores. Through their survey they identified 1,018 consumer products and 1,753 corresponding environmental claims. Out of the products that were examined, all of them but one made claims that were false and mislead intended audiences. Based on these results, the researchers identified six patterns of green washing known as the “six sins of green washing”.

The first sin identified is called “hidden trade-off.” This suggests a product is green based on a single environmental attribute. The second sin is known as the “sin of no proof.” This makes environmental claims that cannot be substantiated by easily accessible supporting information. The third sin is the “sin of vagueness,” a collection of poorly defined or too broad information with likely misunderstandings. The fourth sin is known as the “sin of irrelevance.” This ‘sin’ is committed by a company making an environmental claim that may be truthful but for some reason it is irrelevant for consumers seeking a specific environmentally favorable product. The fifth sin is called as the “sin of fibbing,” which occurs when a company’s environmental claims are false. The sixth sin is known as the “sin of lesser of two evils,” which states companies make green claims that may be true within the product category but jeopardize distracting the consumer from the greater environmental impacts of the category as a whole (“The six sins of greenwashing” 2007).


Symbolic Convergence Theory

The symbolic convergence theory, or fantasy theory, can be used as a lens to analyze other aspects of persuasive communication. Advertisements attempt to sell, promote or simply communicate something to the general audience. The artifact presents Apple’s improved 2008 laptop and explains how it is more environmentally friendly than previous models. It explains how the new computer uses less energy and is made from recycled materials so viewers get a sense that Apple is working hard to create more environmentally responsible products. The final quote at the end of the commercial, “the greenest family of notebooks” also emphasizes that they’re environmentally conscious.

In this commercial, the fantasy being expressed is that they are now “green”. It is a shared fantasy theme amongst viewers. However, some reviewers speculated that consumers may be misled, or greenwashed, by their simplistic, earth friendly television commercials and online advertisements (“What is greenwashing?”, 2012). When a company goes “green” in order to gain support or increase profits through the perception of being environmentally responsible, they are manipulating people’s opinions. The company will essentially spend more money and time on advertising that states that they’re “green” than on making an effort to reduce their environmental impact (“What is greenwashing?”, 2012).

In 2006, Greenpeace, an international organization that seeks to conserve and protect the environment tried to push Apple to go green (“We love our Macs!”). They noted that Apple had no timeline for eliminating PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride) and BFRs (Brominated Flame Retardants), which are toxic and noxious when burned (Hutsko, 2008), and that they needed to create an easier way to take back and recycle old laptops. Greenpeace attended a Mac Expo and encouraged Mac fans to write letters to Steve Jobs, or sign up online to encourage Apple to be a world leader in environmental innovation. Some exhibiters were unhappy with the campaign, and Greenpeace was removed from the expo.

In 2007, Steve Jobs wrote a letter to the public titled, “A Greener Apple” which explained Apple’s movement to go “green” (Valdez, 2012). In response to this letter, Greenpeace published an article applauding Apple’s decision. Apple’s decision to move in this direction caused a positive reaction, or fantasy chain. However, complete cohesion will not be formed from this fantasy chain because even though many people share the fantasy of going green, not everyone does, so they can’t relate to the fantasy of an environmentally friendly movement.

After the arrival of the new MacBooks, competing manufacturer Dell decided to challenge Apple’s “green” fantasy. In 2009, the company complained to the National Advertising Division (NAD) of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, claiming that Apple’s slogan, “the world’s greenest family of notebooks” was misleading consumers. Apple argued that the industry’s common usage of the term ‘family’ “refers to a particular model or group of models and not the entire notebook line” (“Case #5013”, 2009). They explained that according to this definition, Apple’s earlier white MacBook wasn’t counted as part of the new line and thus it doesn’t have to fit the same environmentally friendly claims as the more recent models. But Dell’s statement went against Apple’s earth friendly image as a whole: their newer 2008 models might be more sustainable and “green” but the older white MacBook isn’t up to date.

Since Dell also charged that “the world’s greenest family of notebooks” was a “broad superiority claim” against other company’s laptops, the NAD tested the MacBook line as well as other leading manufacturers’ computers using the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT) rating (5). The EPEAT tool lets buyers “compare PCs based on their environmental impact” (Shah, 2009). The NAD concluded that all of Apple’s laptops had high EPEAT ratings and that no other manufacturer compared. However, after Apple won the dispute against Dell on June 3, 2009, the NAD explained that Apple’s slogan could mislead consumers to believe that MacBooks are better than other manufacturer’s laptops so they suggested that Apple change their slogan to avoid confusion (“Case #5013”, 2009). This led Apple to change the slogan from “the world’s greenest family of notebooks” to “the world’s greenest lineup of notebooks” (LaVellee, 2009).

The question remains: is Apple’s 2008 laptop really “green”? Or does the MacBook Green commercial greenwash viewers to believe so? Apple definitely made changes with the environment and petitioners in mind, and according to a New York Times review written by Joe Hutsko, “[the 2008 MacBook] achieves both Energy Star 4.0 compliance, as well as a gold rating from the Green Electronics Council. (Of course, 103 other notebooks have received gold status, too.)” (Hutsko, 2008). This statement reflects that Apple’s changes are notable but that they aren’t the only company to receive approval from the Green Electronics Council.

Greenpeace asked Apple to create more environmentally friendly and safe products before Jobs declared they were “going green”. They applauded their step in the right direction, and approved of their 2008 MacBook, but Greenpeace International’s toxics campaigner, Casey Harell explained, “Its laptops are definitely better. That in and of itself is a good thing. But not all toxic pieces have been eliminated yet” (Lane, 2008). Greenpeace was hoping that Apple would be the first to produce a laptop made without brominated flame retardant (BFR), or polyvinyl chloride (PVC) (Hutsko, 2008). Although Apple eliminated BFR, they didn’t remove all of the PVC. According to Hutsko, Apple abolished PVC in the unit’s internal connectors and cables but left them in the adapter and external power cord. This means that internally these MacBooks are entirely PVC-free, but Apple cannot say that their entire package is PVC-free (Hutsko, 2008).

The fantasy of “going green” expressed in the 2008 MacBook Green commercial leads viewers to believe that Apple is essentially an environmentally friendly company. There is enough evidence to support that Apple worked to make the necessary changes in order to be for the environment, rather than against it, but that doesn’t mean that they are a “green” company. They are still producing laptops made from numerous chemicals that require enormous amounts of power and energy to manufacture.

Viewers of all types, previous Mac consumers or not, may or may not react to the fantasy expressed in the commercial. Those that do react will be able to relate to the idea of “going green” in some way and start a fantasy chain of wanting to be more environmentally responsible. This may include swapping their older, less sustainable laptops for the newer “green” Macbook. If something bigger than them, such as a thriving company like Apple, makes the decision to reduce its environmental footprint, then consumers will want to make similar decisions as well. The overall fantasy theme of becoming earth friendly will continue to capture those making “green” lifestyle changes and put them under the same “green” umbrella.


The symbols. As the commercial begins, the viewer sees the MacBook in question rotating in a nondescript white space. The space is anti-dimensional because it can simultaneously image a three-dimensional object (the laptop) and display two-dimensional symbols that are visually above the MacBook. Hence, when the first symbol appears, the viewer, with a modern perspective on space and depth, would recognize the hypothetical nature of the images, and psychologically the MacBook may become a signifier for the symbols pictured (which are themselves signifiers of concepts).

When one looks at the artifact in question to examine it for semiotic constructs, the six symbol outlines (arrow, recycling symbol, light bulb, chemistry beakers, explosion cloud, and an earth-sun-clouds scene) immediately advertise themselves as reservoirs of symbolic meaning. And to be sure, there are psychological connects involved with the choices of these symbols. But at a more basic level, even the spatial arrangement standard in the commercial holds its own interpretable meaning.

Use of space. All the drawn symbols in the artifact are pictured above the rotating MacBook (Jared Best 2008 November 24). In his book Semiotics: The Basics, Daniel Chandler explains the connotations of the vertical axis in visual images—the meaning things in a picture might carry because of their spatial positioning. He quotes two researchers, Lakoff and Johnson, who “observe[d] that (in English usage) up has come to be associated with more and down with less” (2002, p. 88, emphasis Chandler’s). What is unclear is whether the ‘more’ and ‘less’ refers to visual emphasis of the higher and lower objects-- is the upper one is more noticeable?-- or if the two objects are of equal impact visually, but the upper one is cast in a slightly more positive air (in a Western culture where ‘more’ is ‘better’ and ‘less’ is ‘worse’). In either case, the positive emphasis belongs to the symbols appearing above the MacBook, so the previous option would seem more plausible, as Apple, Inc. would certainly not want to psychologically shadow their new computer.

Unless Apple is playing a humility game, abdicating the role of ‘better’ and ‘more’ to the more abstract symbols of larger ideas, relying on the slightness of the psychological impression to keep the MacBook at ‘almost best’, if not as ‘best’ as the ideas floating above it.

Other researchers, however, presented a different case for connotations of the vertical axis. According to Chandler, Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen claimed that when “an image is structured along a vertical axis, the upper and lower sections” connote not the good/bad binary opposite, as Lakoff and Johnson explained it, but an ideal/real opposition, where the lower half relates to practical, factual, reality(what is), and the higher half represents the realm of possibility or abstract generalizations(what might be) (2002, pp. 88-89).

This evidence pairs neatly, if not exactly, with the conclusions from Lakoff and Johnson. The symbols of the environment are placed to signify a larger ideal of environmental protection. The MacBook sits lower, in the place of the thing that is in and of itself less important than the greater ideas but at the same time it is presented as the physical reality that meets those ideals.

The arrow. The first symbol to appear in the MacBook Green commercial is a highly recognizable, standard arrow outline. The arrow doesn’t appear until two seconds in to the commercial. By then, the viewer has already seen and slightly registered the image of the MacBook, without being distracted by having to decode a symbol right away.

When the arrow first appears and points at the rotating computer, the narrator says, “This is the new MacBook”. Why? The MacBook is the only thing on the blank screen-- it doesn’t need to be pointed out. Possibly the arrow is meant as a second emphasis—by a couple seconds in, the viewer has seen the computer. Then there is a distraction—and a new image, the arrow. The arrow, however, catches your attention only to refocus it on the product, re-emphasizing the laptop’s importance.

Through a semiotic lens, the recognizable shape called an arrow not only represents information (where something is, along the line of its axis), but also metonymically it could represent the concept of progress itself. In Gillian Fuller’s article on airport signage, “The Arrow—Directional Semiotics: Wayfinding in Transit”, she writes that “[a]t the airport that arrow is a tool for movement” (2002, p. 239), but also “determines specific procedures for movement, for transforming our relationships and personal status” (2002, p. 239). She explains:

In a world where forward movement is privileged, where ‘stasis’ in one’s job, personal psychology, or real estate holdings is seen as decline, the arrow is a trope as well as a tool in this ‘supermodern’ world of constant transit. The arrow is a curious phenomenon…it admits no turning back: move or be devoured, because the ‘technical’ (read global capitalist) world is upgrading (2002, p. 239).

Hidden in the innocent green arrow outline is a full deductive line of thought. The major premise, established above, is that an arrow points to the future. Secondly, the arrow points to the new MacBook (Jared Best 2008), the latest product from a company widely considered to be innovative. Thus, the symbol of the bouncing arrow subconsciously claims the beauty of the future to be in this laptop computer.

The recycling symbol. The viewer has seen a basic arrow, pointing at the new MacBook. When does he next see arrows? In the very next picture: the classic recycling symbol. This symbol not only represents recycling specifically, but also is sometimes adopted to symbolize the green movement in general. Subconsciously, there may be a connection between first the MacBook, then the arrow pointing directly at it, then the famous recycling symbol, which is itself made up of arrows. The arrows link the green symbol to the Mac.

This may be a subconscious claim that this MacBook is green. However, this isn’t so wonderful of a discovery when one already knows that what the narrator is saying claims that directly. But there might be fewer perturbations to our subconscious assent minds because of these psychological connections that have already been made. Also, it is something to know that the nonverbal and verbal cues of this commercial, so far, are in accord.

The light bulb. After the arrow and recycle symbol, the narrator claims, “It’s engineered to be so efficient, it runs on a quarter of the power of a single light bulb” (Jared Best 2008). What the semiotician may find interesting is that the progression from a cartoon of a common incandescent bulb to a symbol for energy usage follows Peirce’s triadic framework, circling the model twice.

The first representamen: the cartoon. The first object: light. The obvious first interpretant: we recognize a picture of a light producer as a symbol of light itself.

The second representamen: a producer of light. The second object: energy. The second interpretant: we recognize that light is usually present at an energy exchange in the physical world. Thus, a common symbol for light is also appropriate as a symbol for energy.

Also, there is a common figurative use of a light bulb as representing a bright idea (“Idea Bulb” n.d.). It is appropriate that the company popularly revered as an icon of innovation uses a light bulb, a symbol of new ideas, to sell its 2008 MacBook, touted for green technology, especially energy conservation.

Themes. During the course of the MacBook Green commercial, over the rotating computer, six symbols appear to illustrate the narration. All the images are in the same color, a bright, fresh green, coordinating with but not directly matching the grass on the MacBook’s screen. Because all of the symbols have the same brightness, they are equals in attracting the viewer. Thus they psychologically impart the same level of urgency, communicating a larger message in smaller, equally important parts.

Since all the symbols are in the color green, the grass in the computer screen is green, and the MacBook line is described as “the world’s greenest family of notebooks,” it is necessary to include a semiotic analysis of the color and its corresponding word.

The word green denotatively refers to the color seen in leaves and grass. From there, its symbolic referent expands to a general reference to the earth and nature. Relatively recently, however, the word ‘green’ expanded again to refer to efforts or attitudes to promote that protection of the natural earth in general and the natural, non-human beings on earth in particular. The color green, in a hermeneutic-like circle, was originally the color of some natural entities, and now represents efforts to protect those entities.

Visually, green is a calming yet vibrant color: a mix of soothing (but moody) blue and cheerful (but harsh) yellow. It keeps the positive psychological characteristic of each while negating the negative (O’Brien 2003). In this commercial, green is the color in focus. The silver MacBook against the white background is not especially distinct, and the default picture on the screen is also green.

Black, silver, and white, the three other colors in the ad, are all neutrals, and provide a clean, minimalist, spare, and slightly luxurious (the metallic of the silver aluminum) stage for the star color to have the fullest impact.

The code. Since signs must operate in a code in whose context they are analyzed for meaning (Chandler 2002, p. 147), there has to be a relatively uniform code or set of codes to guide this look at the semiotics in the MacBook Green commercial. Of the types of codes presented in Semiotics: The Basics, there are several that could apply. Since the symbols are artistic representations in a media environment advertising a product, it appears this commercial would be best analyzed under the category of textual codes, which includes aesthetics, mass media, and rhetoric (Chandler 2002, p. 149). However, the possible greenwashing—an organization presenting itself and its products as environmentally friendly, as a ploy to cater to the culture rather than as a reflection of truth—aspect of the artifact links it also to social codes and particularly interpretive codes. The ideological framework surrounding the green movement is itself a sub-code under the category of interpretative codes.

The idea of greenwashing as a code also sets up a company for success or failure on a scale they may not wish to be adjudicated on. If ‘greenness’ is a cultural code, companies are judged whether they are green or not, by society’s current definition of ‘greenness’. There is no going outside the framework, and thus companies are under pressure to portray themselves as green, whether their products are strictly so or not. As a company known for its cool, hip, young, artistic, and modern image, Apple is under immense pressure to conform to the current standards of environmental responsibility.

In this artifact, the semiotics are clear: there is implicit assent to explicit claims, and a strong image of Apple’s ideology, obtusely and obliquely, that if true is ‘greenness’, but if false is a case of greenwashing.

The Green Package

Apple, Inc. has likely participated in greenwashing by presenting symbolic actions and explicit claims throughout their commercial without corresponding substantive actions. The artifact examined here claims the new MacBooks are “the world’s greenest family of notebooks.” This message Apple Inc. sends to its viewers cannot be supported by concrete detail. Adrienne Jefferies claims the commercial tells viewers it is the greenest laptop in the world. However, there are 113 laptops that have also received EPEAT’s (Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool) golden rating (Jefferies, 2009). Jefferies also states the Apple Inc. has not reduced the amount of harmful toxins to zero, and the MacBook is not one hundred percent recyclable because it does not use any post-consumer recycled content or bio based plastic (Jefferies, 2009). Apple Inc. cannot claim they are the greenest notebook and it is evident they are using green-washing as a strategic communication tool to attract consumers who value the environment.

Greenwashing is the main theme that ties together this analytical review of the “MacBook Green” commercial. Foucault’s adaption of the Panopticon as a symbol of power can be linked to a major company’s monitoring trends in consumer opinions. The company, from pilot tests, surveys, and sales data, can read the pulse of its consumer base and adapt its advertising to the trends of the day. Currently, a major trend is ‘going green’. Foucault’s idea of biopower as an institution granted power at the assent of the people fits with Apple as a mammoth company with an enormous consumer base. When the commercial tells the audience, already influenced by the cultural icon that is the sponsor company and the cultural value of ‘greenness’, that aspects of the computer are eco-friendly, it allows the consumer of the product to believe they have contributed to the going green trend. Therefore, consumers of the new MacBooks feel they have participated in an eco-friendly duty towards our environment.

Symbolic convergence theory fits into the framework of biopower and panopticism. The sharing of fantasies and the fantasy chain confirm the biopower element. With the trend of going green, Apple Inc. knows consumers can view their “MacBook Green” commercial as a shared fantasy because the majority of their consumers have the desire and feel the need to participate in going green. When viewers share the same fantasy of Apple Inc. going green, the fantasy chain reaction is formed. In this case, the fantasy of going green is portrayed and viewers have a positive, energetic response towards the company because they presented a fantasy that is common amongst people in society. Apple greenwashes through this theory when it causes the consumer to feel their purchase is making a positive difference. For this reason consumers have participated in a fantasy chain reaction because their purchase with Apple makes them feel positive.

Semiotics is highly present in the communication tool of greenwashing. In the artifact we are analyzing here, it is apparent Apple Inc. has used semiotics to greenwash the audience. The commercial uses the color green for the icons, the home screen on the sample notebook, and drawn symbols (Jared Best 2008). It is commonly understood in our culture that the color green represents the environment, nature, and freshness. By doing this Apple Inc. uses a rhetorical approach towards the audience to attract them with the product they are selling. By using the color green, it tells the audience that the product they are selling is not only focused on the computer itself, but also focuses on how this product serves a duty towards the environment.


All together, the three theories provide different levels of evidence for a greenwashing case against Apple Inc. Biopower and panopticism deal with the situational framework of Apple as a huge company with fans and a customer base. Symbolic convergence theory explains the interaction between Apple and its customers through the commercial, and confirms the element of biopower, providing more data for the panopticon feature. And semiotics is the lowest level, the psychological influences to the individual mind within the commercial itself. The whole set, structure, interaction, and individual psychology, all wrapped up in the background, interplay, and thoughts of one commercial, form a solid, complete, and powerful package of brilliant advertising production. However, it is that exact solidarity of the production that is what makes Apple so susceptible to the charge of greenwashing. Such strong claims must be supported or they are themselves the best evidence against Apple in an accusation of greenwashing. The structure is firm. The fantasy is developed. The symbols are speaking. There is no middle ground.


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