The recent passing of Steve Jobs is undoubtedly big news. It’s almost always news when one of the world’s richest people dies, so by default this would grab some headlines. But beyond that, of course, Jobs was one of the most successful businessmen of the last thirty years, and many of the triumphs he is associated with are ubiquitous throughout the developed world. He was the purveyor of space-aged gadgets, going all the way back to the personal computer, and more recently with the sleek cavalcade of narcissistically-titled line of i-products: iThis, iThat, I, I, I.
But beyond the worthy news stories, there has also been a stunning outpouring of public grief. Twitter and Facebook are awash with heartfelt eulogies. Around the world, millions of admirers are expressing their mournful odes to a man they never met. The New York Times is not only covering this deluge of remembrances, but also blurring the line between journalism and entertainment by encouraging it. And people who don’t come along for the ride are in danger of being ridiculed.
None of this quite matches the bizarre wave of hair-pulling and public wailing that overtook Great Britain after the death of Princess Diana in 1997, but it is the same thing on a smaller scale. And it is in fact bizarre. This isn’t people lining the train route as Abraham Lincoln’s body was returned to Illinois, publicly paying respects to the man who led a nation through its bloodiest conflagration (nearly 2 percent of the U.S. population died during the war) and contributed to the end of slavery. This isn’t even like the death of a pope; hell, I’m an atheist, but I get it. If you’re a believer, then a person doesn’t get much more important than a pope, and it makes perfect sense that you’d be moved to tears.
But a guy whose primary claim to fame was overseeing the design and pedaling of undersized computers? Really? Taken at face value, that just doesn’t add up. So what is this really about then?
Brand loyalty and the cult of personality.
Human beings are notorious for wanting to be part of a team, or at the very least, root for one. The most obvious manifestation of this phenomenon in the modern era is people rooting for sports teams and getting quite carried away with it. Actually, I’m guilty as charged on that one, so this isn’t about me being judgmental.
Other, more subtle forms include nationalism, following a TV show religiously, or rooting for a political party. And of course there’s marketing’s holy grail of team rooting: brand loyalty.
At one time in my life, I had an unhealthy obsession with Puma sneakers. Some people used to get a hard on for Chevies. And if I have to listen to one more person tell my why Coke is so much better than Pepsi or visa versa, I’m gonna blow a gasket.
Apple managed to produce fantastic brand loyalty among many of its customers, some of the fiercest in this new century. Its fans would, of course, say this is merely the result of Apple producing superior products, but that’s not the issue. Whether they did or didn’t is not what brand loyalty is really about.
Sure, some Apple products are superior in some ways. Some of them are not. But brand loyalty isn’t about that. It’s about a person developing a connection to a branded line of products, about building an illusory relationship between the producer and the customer, which is facilitated by marketers and advertisers. It’s about being a loyalist, sticking by your team through thick and thin, and rooting for their success.
One of the sure signs of brand loyalty as a social phenomenon is that it pisses off people who root for another team (in this case Microsoft, Google, Mozilla, etc.), and alienates those who don’t want to choose a side. All of this is in evidence with the Apple craze.
As far as cult of personality, Jobs was so effective at it that he was constantly satirized, sometimes lovingly, sometimes critically. He turned each product launch into a New Age event and placed himself at the center of it, developing his black turtle-necked image and making himself the public face of technological innovation. And millions bought into it, coming to love, respect, and admire a man they’d never met.
I’m human, I’m weak, I’m flawed. As I’ve noted, I’m susceptible to these ugly social phenomena, though not as much as used to be. And being conscious of their ugliness, I occasionally do what I can to tear them down. But being reactionary won’t accomplish anything positive. Arguing about why Apple products aren’t the best at everything all the time won’t destroy people’s brand loyalty. If anything it’s more likely to cement it by encouraging people to harden their dogma through adversarial arguments.
Likewise, I won’t get very far trying to tear down Jobs’s cult of personality by pointing out that he could be a really awful person, doing things like denying the daughter he had out of wedlock, going so far as to swear in a court document that he was sterile (he would later father three children), and leaving the mother to welfare while he was literally a millionaire.
Or like when he banned the political cartoons of Mark Fiore from the iPhone store. Fiore shortly thereafter won a Pulitzer Prize for those cartoons, embarrassing Jobs into relenting, though he publicly lied about it, claiming he lifted the ban before Fiore won the Pulitzer, not afterwards. But if I go down that road, his supporters will likely mark me as a heartless crank and dismiss me for having an axe to grind. After all, I’m not an Apple user, and anyway, every human death is a tragedy, or so I’m told, and what kind of an asshole speaks ill of someone who just died?
So instead I’ll simply say this:
No brand deserves your loyalty, and no person is worthy of cultish behavior.
Blind faith deludes us into thinking we have made special connections and attained special knowledge. In reality, it merely makes us a tool to serve the interests of those we put our faith in.