The Apple Effect

Thursday Morning  November 2, 2017, I roll out of bed.  The temperature outside is in the 40’s and despite the benefit of central heating, I can feel it.  I stumble into the bathroom and prepare myself to face the day.

Dressed, I head downstairs for my first cup of coffee.  I pop in a coffee capsule into my single-serve coffee maker, place a cup in its cradle, and press the start button. After 60 seconds of hissing and spurting and I am rewarded with my morning cup of Jo.  Shoes, then coat, then hat; I am off into the darkness.

I love my early morning walks.  Dark and quiet the world belongs to me, but not today. I walk the mile or so to downtown and I notice unusual activity on Jefferson Avenue.  It looks like someone has erected a small collapsible beach tent on the sidewalk. My brain does some quick early morning calculations, and I assume it must be some sort of a warming tent for a work crew.  I approach ever closer, but something doesn’t feel right.

There are people standing around the little tent, but they are dressed in expensive jackets made of down and high-tech insulators.  They appear purposeless, sober, and tired.  As I move closer I’m now aware that what I thought was a few workers is actually a very long line of people standing between a narrow gangway between two buildings.  The line goes back as far as I can see and is dotted with lawn chairs and other collapsible contraptions.  I acknowledge the first person in the line, “Hello!” I say.  He doesn’t respond.  “Hello, good morning!”  He looks up.  “What’s going on here?”  “The iPhone X,” he mumbles.  Now it becomes clear, my quiet and meditative walk has been subverted by a gaggle of Apple fanboys and girls all wanting the new iPhone X.  A product that they deem so important to them that some of them have likely spent the night standing in the cold to get one.

Dear readers, I have a Mac, I have an iPad, and I have an iPhone.  They are wonderful if overpriced products.  I enjoy using them every day.  However, I would not be willing to wait in the cold for hours so I could have the “honor” of being one of the first people on my block to purchase one. Clearly, many people do not share that opinion.  This got me thinking.

I have owned several generations of iPhones.  Each one is better, but hardly a life-changer.  Perhaps the processor was a bit faster, the camera had a few more megapixels, or the screen was a slightly sharper. However, the essence of the experience has been about the same from one version to the next.

It is likely that most of the people standing in line already had iPhones. So why wouldn’t they just buy their new toy online and wait a couple weeks for delivery?  The overall outcome would be the same. I call the reason the “Apple Effect.”  The ability to hype a product to such a degree that people become irrational about their desire to have it.  A utilitarian device becomes a symbol, a badge of prestige and sophistication.  A telephone has been transformed into something else.  That something else is significant enough to demand a premium price.  It is significant enough to have people give up sleep and comfort in order to obtain it. On some level, the buyer becomes convinced that a phone will somehow change them or their lives, despite absolute evidence that is contrary to this hypothesis.  It is cool to get a new toy, but we all know that a new toy becomes an old toy in very short order.

Creating desire is one of the oldest methods of advertising.  Making something that is common, uncommon is as obvious as the number of women wearing diamond engagement rings. Over 100 years ago De Beers transformed diamonds from a fairly abundant stone to a priceless gem by coining the phrase, “A diamond is forever.” Diamonds are made of carbon, like coal.  They burn up in fires, they can fracture and chip.  In reality, they are not “forever.”  The reality is not important, the catchphrase is.

Current hypesters like Apple also play on the idea of shortage to make their products seem rare.  They leak “secret” information about their designs to tweak interest.  They tout features that have little significance.  A processor that is 60% faster has little significance if your current processor is fast enough. The ability to turn yourself into an animated unicorn or pile of poo is hardly a reason to pony up the cash needed to move to the next generation device.  However, we buy the excitement and jump onboard.

Apple has adopted another strategy for success, it prices its products above similar equipment.  Apple has always had an “Apple tax,” but recently they have pushed overpricing into the stratosphere.  They know that making a product more expensive intrinsically makes it more valued. Women with logoed purses and men with branded ties know this phenomenon well.

Apple has been expert using channels like YouTube to hype their products.  All advertising is good, even if a phone reviewer questions their cost or design.  Every time you see an electronic article, YouTube video, or vlog about the iPhone X you are reminded of it.  Free commercials for this very rich company.

We all can be 15-minute celebrities when we flash our new toy, the question to ask, is it worth it?

That depends on the person or situation.  For some waiting in line all night is akin to being the first in line for a Black Friday sale.  Yes, you got that unneeded Bluray player for $40, but you really went to the sale to be part of the circus.  For some having the latest and greatest is a fun pursuit.  Then there are a few who really need the additional functionality or power of the new phone.  However, it saddens me if someone is going into debt to possess a gadget that they don’t need and can’t afford.

I was surfing YouTube the day after the Thursday launch and came across a video from Brian Tong, the host of CNET’s “Apple Byte.”  He looked weary from being up late from monitoring multiple internet buying sites so he could secure a new iPhone X.  During his short video, he commented sadly on the fact that so much energy was being spent purchasing a very expensive product when there were so many other more important things happening in the world.  I know that he will never see this blog, but that video gave me new respect for him.  His comments rang true.

Will I get an iPhone X?  Possibly, and I can’t absolutely justify it.  I have some Apple gift cards and I will be retiring soon. I like new toys.  So am I a hypocrite?  I can’t answer that.  I’m a complex guy and not a two-dimensional cartoon cutout. Sometimes it is OK to do irrational things, as long as you are not hurting yourself or someone else in the process. However, if I do get one it will be with the understanding that I am buying it because I want it, not because I need it.  Or is it because I have become victim to the “Apple Effect?”

Hours before the Apple store opened, they wait.
The line of potential iPhone buyers snakes off into the distance.

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