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Wednesday’s high-profile Apple event is another example the company’s signature recipe for innovation. No, I’m not referring to Apple’s knack for redefining whole tech categories with sleek design and streamlined interfaces. I’m talking about their ability to generate massive amounts of free publicity.

Whatever else it may be — a tech giant, a design firm, a small country with a huge pile of cash — Apple is a masterful marketing enterprise. The company knows how to turn a product launch into a media spectacle.

When did this start?

Ironically, it began with a television commercial from the 1980s, one of the most famous commercials of all time. Simply titled 1984 — in an homage to the famously dystopian novel — the commercial imagined the new Macintosh computer as a full-color liberator about to free humanity from the black-and-white blandness of the PC.

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Officially, at least, that legendary ad only ran twice, but it was so instantly iconic that it was played and replayed across shows and screens in the days that followed — generating some $5 million in free publicity.

What about the iPhone?

Forget $5 million. When former Apple CEO Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone in 2007, the wave of media coverage amounted to $400 million in free press, according to one estimate. In fact, the barrage of publicity was so thick that for a while Apple actually held off on iPhone advertising, preferring to let the buzz spread on its own.

Since that time, theatrical launch events have become the norm for Apple products, and media interest hasn’t waned.

“It’s brilliant marketing,” said Michael A. Cusumano, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and the co-author of “Strategy Rules: Five Timeless Lessons from Bill Gates, Andy Grove, and Steve Jobs.”

Cusumano added that it’s not just about the events. There’s also an “incredible secrecy around product development,” which feeds into the excitement and anticipation.

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Is free publicity enough?

No, but it certainly helps. Apple really does seem to spend less on marketing than other, comparable companies. The chart below shows that in 2013, Microsoft spent twice as much on ads. A year earlier, Samsung spent four times as much.

Source: ASYMCO

No major tech company turns ads into revenue as efficiently as Apple, as is clear from this second chart showing advertising dollars as a share of sales. Free media coverage is likely part of the reason.

Source: ASYMCO


Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the U.S. He can be reached at evan.horowitz@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz