07 October 2011

Can We Get a Grip, Please?

I just read this column at The Gawker which lampoons those enveloped in paroxysms of grief because Steve Jobs has died. I could hardly agree more. For a sampling of the over-the-top responses to his death see this column at The Guardian.

So maybe we need some perspective. On the drive home this evening I heard this encomium to Jobs and his marketing prowess on npr and figured it would be worth underscoring just part of the segment. Because while the npr folk - and this was the business groupies at Marketplace - thought they were singing Jobs's praises, they actually revealed what a manipulative genius he truly was:

Making people feel like it cares is exactly why Apple is Apple, says Jen Drexler, a brand analyst at Just Ask a Woman.

Jen Drexler: You joined it. It's like enrolling in college and wearing the sweatshirt. You joined this brand the second you became hooked on one of the products.

Part of it is the cool factor. Drexler says instead of focusing on selling to businesses and targeting the cubicle culture, Mac aimed its products at musicians, filmmakers and visual artists.

Drexler: And then everyone else who has one can feel a little bit of that too. I can tell you I've never done anything creative with mine ever, but I would like to believe people think I do.

And once you buy in to that perception, it's hard to get out. Apple's products have never played very well with others. PC documents won't open on your Mac; your iTunes songs wont load onto your Android phone. All of which creates an aura of superiority, says consumer behavior consultant Britt Beemer.

Britt Beemer: Part of that non-compatibility was kind of a snob appeal Apple also created for its customers.

Beemer points out Apple products also quickly become incompatible with themselves. For instance, if you buy a new iPhone, it won't work with your 4-year-old MacBook Pro. And when you finally break down and buy a new laptop, you will discover it no longer syncs up with your old iPod. At least that's what I hear.

Beemer says this cycle, vicious though it feels, is exactly what Apple's consumers thrive on. The short life span makes Apple products synonymous with what's new and what's cool. Which kind of makes you cool.

Beemer: People discarded an Apple product to get the new Apple product. If you have an Apple product, you always have the latest technology.

Beemer did a series of consumer studies for Steve Jobs back in the '80s. He says even back then, Jobs wanted people to get emotionally attached to their machines.

So, what Jobs did at Apple was to manipulate people into thinking that the company gave a shit about them as something other than sources of income. And once he tapped the consumer's emotions and got he or she to identify with the brand, he regularly updated the product line in ways that extracted money from said consumer on a regular basis - and, by the way, relied on planned obsolescence that is wholly non-sustainable and so environmentally reprehensible. The result? Under the illusion of being "cool" consumers made Apple successful and Jobs filthy rich. That was his job and he did it exquisitely well. Case in point? The consumer and investor disappointment just this week when Apple failed to announce the iPhone 5 and updated only to the 4S!

What is perhaps most pathetic about this dynamic is this inference. If Jobs managed to get consumers to buy into the "cool cult," what they are engaged in now - complete with votive candles and shrines at the mall - might be interpreted less as mourning Jobs than as expressing anxiety about the source of their own coolness. The brand - and so their identity - is under threat and that must make them uneasy. Right? Uncharitable maybe, but not implausible.

I'll end with a comment on visuals. I have seen the image above numerous times today. And once I heard the Marketplace story this evening, I began to ponder Jobs the manipulative genius.
Manipulation, after all, is not an admirable practice. It consists in my influencing you in some way behind your back, taking you unawares, exploiting your lack of information, your guilelessness, or your emotional proclivities. That made me view the image above in a less friendly and somewhat sinister light. And it brought to mind these images - of Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich - making me wonder if indeed we have failed to locate Steve Jobs in the proper frame just yet.

This last comparison might seem to be a stretch. But, after all, one crucial feature of the Jobs strategy was to segment the market, keeping Apple products (and hence their users) from interacting outside the brand. A profitable strategy, no doubt. But remember - one common symptom of an abusive personal relationship is that one party tries systematically to isolate the other from contact with family and friends outside the relationship so as to create and sustain a heightened emotional dependency. That is what I think of this evening as I see pictures of distraught consumers mourning at Apple stores.
P.S.: The Marketplace folk offered this mea culpa today following an onslaught of outraged cult members. There is not much in the listener complaints that makes me reconsider the post. I explain why in the comment thread below.

P.S.2 (10/8/2011): I would recommend this short piece over at The Gawker for those tempted to the cult of St. Steve. I am less concerned that the guy
could be a jerk on a personal level - lots of people fit that description - even though harassing and insulting subordinates in the workplace is pretty much inexcusable. And I do not deny the opening comments about his talents and impact on industry and so forth. But the bit on labor conditions and the environmental impact re: Apple production and, of course, the bits about restricting free expression are in keeping with what I initially wrote. Sometimes, it seems, Jobs was not just manipulative - in the sense of exercising influence behind people's backs - and was instead willing to simply exercise power blatantly for his own purposes.

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Blogger Stan B. said...

Thank you for your (dare I say it?) fair and balanced perspective.

07 October, 2011 00:59  
Blogger DanT said...

FYI - Maketplace has essentially retracted the story which you reference above because of a plethora of errors. I suggest that you go back and first read the comments on the Marketplace website exposing these errors and then read or listen to the follow-up story produced the following day. I also would suggest that you note this in your blog post so as to not lose credibility with your readers.

07 October, 2011 18:52  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...


You are right that Marketplace did a mea culpa. I think there are two issues. One is the question of compatibility. I will say that I believe the story because I personally have had difficulties on just that score. When I moved from PC to Apple virtually NONE of my files would open. That is a fact, so while experience may vary, mine sucked. Moreover, a month after I bought the Mac product the hard drive crashed and the nice folks at the Apple store spent a long time blaming the drive manufacturer as though the machine did not carry the Apple logo and the big check I'd recently written them was not made out to Apple. I think the raft of outrage by devotees is predictable enough and that the 'your experience may vary' is about right.

That said, there is another issue that I think is more important. That is the strategy that Apple adopted of updating and changing products in rapid succession. You cannot even buy the version of the iPod I owned (and you couldn't once Jobs decided he preferred the Nano). And the iPod batteries were notoriously short-lived and expensive enough to replace that you were advised to just purchase a new unit. Moreover, have 'improvement' after 'improvement' is a way of encouraging folks to buy the new improved version even if their existing machine works just fine. Jobs was a master of that strategy. He was not alone in pursuing it, but he perfected it. It seems odd to worship the man for his marketing prowess and then pooh pooh the actual strategy he pursued with such vigor.

So, while I appreciate your sticking up for the brand, I am not a convert. They make nice machines. But no one in Cupertino has ever walked on water.

And, by the way, please note that I am making an exception for your anonymous comment.

07 October, 2011 19:18  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

P.S.: Dan, One thing that I forgot to mention is that the primary reason I switched from PC to Mac was that my co-author had done so. It was not that I was eager to follow his lead. Rather, it was simply infuriating that every time we sent a chapter back or forth we encountered all sorts of compatibility issues - formatting would disappear or go all weird on us, and so forth. Apple devices - in my experience - do not play well with others.

07 October, 2011 20:43  
Blogger Beth E. said...

You're totally spot-on with your critique of Jobs--have a look at the stories that are coming up now about the view of the Chinese workers who make all the Apple stuff who have been poisoned by the heavy metals, etc. on his death. (Looking at our media, I would have to assume that his death is SOOOO much more significant than those of his exploited workers then, no?)

It's interesting to see the deeply emotional backlash in online comments wherever I've seen these sorts of posts that are anything other than reverent hagiography of the guy--the Apple thing really is some sort of a consumer cult, as you so astutely point out here, Jim.

Thanks for the clear-eyed analysis, yet again!


08 October, 2011 00:21  
Blogger Tom White said...

The cult of Jobs is pretty reprehensible. I use both PCs and Macs, and have issues with both of them, but my main gripes with Apple machines is the way they force you to do things the 'Apple Way' rather than the way you want. In fact, I've had numerous issues with students and their Apple devices that has led me to blame Apple for making people computer illiterate. The fact that my 3 year old can manipulate the Ipad OS with ease is great, but in regards to the understanding of the tools you are using, the simplicity and "Let me do it all for you" of Apple's OS is a big problem.

In any case, my biggest issue with Apple has always been Steve Jobs and the company philosophy, not the machines themselves, which are just tools and work great if you know how to use them (as do PC's, if you know how to use them.)

I've always thought Jobs was smart, but the problem for me is that he used that intelligence to delude and manipulate. He reminds me of the boss who demands loyalty from his workers and customers, but gives none in return and would fire you or drop your business in a second. The oft stated fact that one of his first acts when returning to Apple was to cancel all it's philanthropic endeavours is telling enough.

It's always sad when someone succumbs to illness and I am very much sorry to his family and friends for their loss, but this cult like adulation from the public is disturbing and misplaced.

23 October, 2011 23:34  

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