The apostles of corporate manipulation are everywhere

Sat, Mar 10, 2012, 00:00

The way we worship consumer products is uncomfortably close to religious devotion, writes DONALD CLARKE

W ILL WE ever stop worshipping stuff?

An increasing number of us now agree that the universe was not brought into existence by some Judeo-Christian super-being. Sincere apologies are offered to those readers – many wiser than your correspondent – who still believe in claptrap (that’s the official scientific term) such as poltergeists, transubstantiation, divine grace, astrology, homeopathy and the Monasterevin Panther. But we do seem to be slowly, painfully drifting away from superstition to embrace a more rational view of the cosmos.

This does not mean we have stopped worshipping stuff. Just look at the hysteria that greeted Apple’s announcement of the new iPad last week. The late Steve Jobs’s presentations of his firm’s latest iThing became notorious for blending political rally with revivalist meeting. The addition of a second USB port or a minor alteration in keyboard layout was greeted with the sort of euphoria you’d expect to encounter at the unveiling of a sequel to the Decalogue.

The businesslike Tim Cook, current CEO of Apple, can’t quite master that uneasy amalgam of Deepak Chopra and Aleister Crowley. But the crowds still clapped manically when news came that the latest iPad would, indeed, boast the much-vaunted Retina display. Hallelujah! All praise the significantly increased image resolution!

Few companies generate the degree of product worship that hangs around Apple’s undeniably nifty gadgets. A recent BBC documentary, Secrets of the Superbrands, featured a neuroscientist who claimed that when Apple devotees glance at their devices, stimulation occurs in the same parts of the brain that service religious devotion. The study sounded just that little bit flaky. But there’s no doubt that the dedicated Apple stores do come across like secular temples. The Apple logo sits over the door in much the same way that crosses lurk above church portals. A mass of Apple clerics minister to our needs. Stone floors increase the sense of ecclesiastic devotion.

Product worship has been around since the birth of capitalism. But, until relatively recently, it was confined to the very top end of the market. Chocolate enthusiasts might have preferred a Bounty Bar to a Marathon, but they were unlikely to regard that choice as saying anything significant about their personalities. By way of contrast, many Apple users feel themselves culturally superior to those who still hammer away at Windows or poke Android devices.

True luxury brands such as Ferrari motorcars, Church’s shoes or Rolex watches have been playing this game for decades. If you used one of those products, you could reasonably claim to be part of some sordid, materialistic elite. You didn’t get to your destination any more efficiently. Your feet were no dryer. You were, perhaps, just four nanoseconds more accurate in your timekeeping. But you could congratulate yourself on using the same products enjoyed by James Bond.

In these territories, the game was changed by increased promotion of Levi 501 jeans during the mid-1980s. You remember. For years, Levi’s were – outside eastern Europe, anyway – viewed as an unremarkable brand of denim trouser. Yes, they were the most popular, but nobody yet regarded them as sacred vestments.

We cherish the Levi’s television commercials for their canny combination of amusing narrative with classic popular tunes. What was, however, truly remarkable was the way the advertisers drummed up nostalgic affection for an item that, to this point, most of us had never encountered. We grew up with Levi’s that had orange tags and handy zippers. Yet, in the blink of an eye, we found ourselves pretending to cherish a trouser with red tags and charming button-up flies. Many of us were prepared to pay premium prices to indulge this implanted false memory. Even Philip K Dick would have struggled to imagine a more peculiar class of corporate manipulation.

The analogy with religious devotion is not such a stretch. Our chosen product may be superior to the one on the neighbouring shelf. But it is iconography, implications of superiority and belief in superior beings that drive fanatical product loyalty. Consider the great crisis of faith that hit Apple users in the 1990s. Jobs had been exiled from Heaven. Unlovely pizza-box Macintoshes shipped with a gimmicky new push-button operating system. (Does anybody else remember the awful At Ease software?) Only blind devotion to the creed kept us loyal to an apparently dying brand. Then the saviour returned from the wilderness.

It should, by now, have become clear that this writer has never managed to break free from the Apple family (I use that last word in the same way it was used by Charles Manson). Every now and then – pondering Bill Gates’s altruism and Apple’s worrying Chinese factories – I cautiously poke the space bar of a competing product. But, to paraphrase G K Chesterton on Catholicism, a twitch from an unseen hook on an invisible thread always pulls me back to the true faith.

I’m ashamed.

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