In the 2001 Ben Stiller comedy Zoolander, Christine Taylor plays the oxymoronic Matilda Jeffries, a hard-hitting fashion reporter. But as Jeffries becomes closer to Stiller’s Zoolander and his myriad of male models, she becomes wrapped up in the glamour and party sensibilities of the fashion world.
It was with Taylor’s character in mind I watched the tech media absolutely gush over the unveiling of Apple’s iPhone 6 and its Apple Watch. The fanboyism was so rampant amongst reporters, in fact, Apple used tweets by otherwise respectable journalists as advertising fodder. Much like Derek Zoolander, the Church of Apple had once again indoctrinated a fellowship of Matilda Jeffries with plastic awe and the false miter of innovation (the Apple Watch is basically Apple’s version of Magnum).
Much like the world of fashion, Apple relies very desperately on the hype machine of blogs and reporters to do their advertising for them. Through a combination of Nixon-level press wrangling and nurturing a network of fanboys the envy of any tech company, Apple is slowly revealing their greatest weakness may be the products themselves.
The inclusion of reporters tweets into an advertising campaign begs certain comparisons, none of them great for Apple or the people reporting on them. Imagine if a politician were to use the words of pundits and journalists in a campaign ad. One might question the relationship between the two worlds and whether the skepticism necessary for every reporter was not absent. John McCain, for example, once called the press his “base.”
Much like a politician, Apple rewards positive coverage with access. The world of Cupertino is a closely guarded one and few reporters are trusted with interviews or leaks. In 9to5Mac’s nine-part epic about Apple’s PR juggernaut, longtime Apple gumshoe Mark Gurman details how Apple uses and abuses reporters.
“Off-the-record,” Gurman writes, “the company has warned journalists off of following the paths of other writers, or suggested that a relationship problem with Apple would be avoided if the journalist opts not to cover certain topics.”
The piece—which is worth a read in full—is loaded with stories and anecdotes which essentially amount to Apple bullying reporters for doing their job. Like a nanny editor, Apple might call up a reviewer if they’ve left out a certain spec and even passes out handbooks on what a good Apple article should look like. “You have to be able to control the journalist,” says one insider.
Apple, being the titan of industry that it is, has a lot of questions to answer for, be they related to accessibility issues or its dubious record on human rights within its supply chain. In a desperate attempt to avoid such queries about tax evasion and their terrible environmental record, Apple hopes the glitz will sideline the press just as it did yesterday.
The best example of this might be the response to Apple Pay, the mobile payments system Apple unveiled next to their larger phones and smartwatch. Mobile payments has been a frozen sea for most companies, never achieving mainstream success. But by partnering with major retailers like Whole Foods and Starbucks, Apple could use their considerable market penetration to make this service widespread.
However, nary a single word from the tech media about the privacy issues such a system represents, especially when it comes from the same company that couldn’t protect Jennifer Lawrence.
While asking a company to confront its major controversies at a product unveiling may be a bit classless, the event itself is a mastery at making your forget that Apple isn’t really changing anything. Sticking with Steve Jobs’ doctrine of borrowing the work of others, everything Apple unveiled Tuesday already exists. Phone manufacturers have been trending towards bigger sizes for years, the smartwatch market is more crowded than ever, and while no one has succeeded at mainstreaming mobile payments, they’re well past new.
But because Apple is doing it, because Apple has been stoking and mastering its own hype amongst journalists for years, it’s a major news story.
At its I/O developer’s conference earlier this year, Google attempted to offer new things. They unveiled a cross-platform wearable OS in Android Wear and created the first OS for a vehicle. This was a short month after showing off their self-driving car.
While tech blogs certainly covered the event, it was never a front-page story, even though it inarguably offered more to discuss. Apple famously can capture the public’s imagination with surprisingly little (I’m not sure how many engineers it took to make the phone bigger) and they know this.
Apple has slowly been fading into the background as an aging behemoth when compared to the work at Facebook, Google, and Amazon. Unlike those companies, Apple isn’t playing with drones or VR headsets. In fact, it’s most exciting and newsworthy event of late was the acquisition of headphones manufacturer Beats by Dre, a relatively boring and unimportant purchase when compared to, say, robots and hi-resolution satellite imagery.
As every other company attempts to expand its services, Apple is doubling-down on being a simple manufacturer of gadgets. While that stability might be reassuring to shareholders, it represents the vulnerabilities Apple attempts to gloss over with its PR methods. Apple can get away with being simple because the hype it generates amongst reporters and its fanbase makes every product seem like an event.
This cycle of hype has been nicely captured before, most notably by research firm Gartner. Things start with a “Technology Trigger” (rumors of an Apple smartwatch start to leak to the press) and quickly inflate to the “Peak of Inflated Expectations” (check out these smooth concept designs compared to what we actually saw). Upon release, the product enters the “Trough of Disillusionment” only to (hopefully) ascend to the “Slope of Enlightenment” then settle on the “Plateau of Productivity.”
What Gartner describes here is functionally Apple’s entire business model. The company has famously recreated the product unveiling and made them more like a runway display than the nerd party such affairs used to be. These new gizmos came after more than a year of speculation and expectations-building and, much like previous Apple products, will be either outdated, unfashionable, or both by this time next year.
It’s this expected slump in adoration Apple fears the most. While the pomp and hype of an unveiling can drive positive headlines, they can’t make up for poor user experience. No moment exemplifies this better than the antenna issues of the iPhone 4. After intense levels of user backlash to the phone’s poor reception, Steve Jobs himself informed users they were the problem.
Of course, that didn’t hurt sales of the phone. Indeed, Apple’s fanbase is notoriously in its unwavering, infallible love with the corporation. Apple blogs and forums are so numerous the company is functionally its own beat, enforcing the need for a specialty like a reporter might have for an entire industry. By creating products that simply necessitate more Apple products, they manage an ecosystem that requires brand loyalty from both users and the press.
It’s this loyalty they can count on when they release a new iPhone. No matter how little their is to be excited about within the product, Apple knows its own private media network will be excited about it simply because they have to be. They use Apple blogs like a Republican candidate might use Fox News and for the exact same reason: To avoid all but the most favorable audiences.
What reporters often attribute as causes for Apple’s behavior as a corporation is largely not what Apple wants, but what Apple needs. Apple needs this continuation of hype. They need you and the press to ignore the man behind the curtain, to focus instead on soft metal surfaces and colorful icons. And like any need, it shows deep flaws in how Apple approaches their business. Hype dies off, and all Apple can do is hope it doesn’t go with it.
Photo via loran/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)