Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Celebrity Products

I first encountered the curious phenomenon of product loyalty writ large when I bought an Apple II Plus computer circa 1980. What I’d really wanted was a Radio Shack TRS-80, but I could not justify its stiff price. The Apple was more affordable. In my efforts to learn how to use that product, I got involved with an Apple User Group and read various trade magazines centered on Apple products. To my surprise I found myself mingling with what felt like members of a tribe or of a cult.

In many ways the Apple II+ was an incomplete sort of product when I bought it. I had to purchase a special card for around $300 just to make it display 80 characters on its screen—and I chose that route because, even with that extra expenditures, it still cost less than the TRS-80. Nor did the product have a very long official life. It was only produced for three-and-a-half years (6/1979-12/1982). Then came the Apple IIe (1/1983), then the Macintosh (1/1984), and so on. I bought one of each of those as well but then, thanks to external influences—namely Brigitte’s work environment at Gale Research—I got to know the IBM PC and parted company with Apple for good. It became obvious to me that Apple was running a strange new kind of company in which the deliberate obsolescing of its products was a policy—and a successful policy only because the company enjoyed a new kind of customer better described as the fiercely loyal fan.

I’d gotten into computers in search of utility. But computing had another base: people for whom owning that product was participating in a kind elite. And Apple did its utmost to foster the feeling that, being an Apple user, one was a member of a vanguard. One bought a computer, to be sure, but really joined a faith, complete with its prophet, Steve Jobs.

Now this phenomenon did not stop with the Macintosh—or even the death of the prophet  (5/2011). It has continued on with music ( ITunes, 4/2000), telephones (IPhone, 6/2007) and now with presumably world-conquering apps like Apple Pay (10/2014).

I believe I am correct in surmising that Apple also, more generally, invented the Celebrity Product. Now that phrase is used in commerce—and has been so used for at least a generation—as designating products endorsed by celebrities. But the meaning I give that phrase refers to products that are owned because their ownership bestows a gilding of celebrity on the purchaser—and it matters not at all how good the product is or whether better products might be out there. Apple’s products meet this test. They did so even back when I first bought my Apple II+. Better products were already on the market. But spending on toys is never really about the toy. They’re about the Toy Plus. The Toy Plus participating in celebrity.

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