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CONSUMER CONFIDENTIAL

Apple flexes its buzz power

September 07, 2007|DAVID LAZARUS

P.T. Barnum is most often credited with spotting the correlation between birthrates and suckerdom. If not Barnum, it might just as well have been Apple Inc.'s buzzmeister in chief, Steve Jobs.

After whipping people into a frenzy a couple of months ago for his $599 iPhone, Jobs now says he's slashing the price by a third. The announcement Wednesday instantly drew scorn from Apple enthusiasts who'd rushed out to purchase the high-priced gizmo and now wonder whether they got played for chumps.

It also ensured yet more free press for a company that excels at the art of buzz and at manipulating both consumers and the media -- a sophisticated practice that's increasingly being employed by businesses and political players.

"Apple and Jobs are the masters," said Ramez Toubassy, president of Brand Sense Partners, a Century City brand-consulting firm that counts Britney Spears and MGM among its clients. "All consumer-goods companies can take a page from their book."

And despite his praise for Apple, Toubassy is as cheesed off at the company as anyone. Toubassy said he purchased his iPhone the day it went on sale, June 29, by paying a premium to someone else who stood in line for hours to get the gadget.

Toubassy was among numerous iPhone owners who tried in vain Thursday to get a $200 refund from Apple.

"I love my iPhone," he said. "It's the principle more than anything else."

As Apple's buzz machine kicked into high gear Thursday, the company said it would offer $100 in store credit to angry iPhone owners like Toubassy, thus guaranteeing still more publicity and the prospect of even more profit.

Such is the power of buzz and the power of a hot brand.

"I would put branding on a par with religion and politics for the influence it has on people's lives," said Brent Scarcliff, a Redondo Beach brand consultant. "It's become that powerful."

Case in point: Actor/politician Fred Thompson decided Wednesday to skip a Republican presidential debate and instead announce his much-buzzed-about candidacy on NBC's "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno."

Thompson's no dummy. He knew he'd get more media attention traveling to a Burbank soundstage than to a New Hampshire political forum. "It's a lot more difficult to get on 'The Tonight Show' than it is to get on a presidential debate," he quipped to Leno.

Nice line. Just like the way Apple's Jobs had a ready answer for why he was cutting iPhone prices by $200 so shortly after the product's release.

He said he wanted to "put iPhones in a lot of stockings this holiday season," rather than admitting to getting the better of all the buzz-monkeys out there who just have to have the gadget-du-jour, no matter what the cost.

"Some people call it manipulation," Scarcliff observed. "Some call it leadership. There's a very fine line between the two."

Huntington Beach resident Andy Weiss knows where he stands on that particular issue. Like a lot of other iPhone owners, he said he woke up Thursday morning and felt like he'd been had.

"I was stunned," Weiss, 51, said of reading in the paper about the price cut. "I felt completely taken advantage of."

He, too, contacted Apple on Thursday to demand a $200 refund.

"I'm not sorry I paid about $600 for an iPhone," Weiss said. "But I am sorry I paid $600 for what's really a $400 phone."

Consumers have every reason to feel duped. But they have only themselves to blame. No one forces you to buy a $600 cellphone, no matter how much hype might be swirling around.

Similarly, everyone's known for weeks that Thompson is running for president. Yet he still manages to land a place on "The Tonight Show" and overshadow his Republican rivals.

"If anyone's suffering here, it's the media's objectivity," Toubassy of Brand Sense Partners said. "You guys are being managed by smart marketeers and smart PR people who know you just have to have the story."

It's true. All media outlets want to be out front on a hot story. The trouble is, businesses and political campaigns are staffed by people -- often former journalists -- who know how the media's hunger for a scoop can be manipulated and exploited.

What's the answer? Not to cover the release of one of the most anticipated consumer products of the year? Not to give air time to a charismatic actor who wants to be president?

No. You go where the buzz leads you.

"Everybody's willing to be manipulated to one extent or another," said Scarcliff, the brand consultant.

And now that the iPhone's come down $200 in price, he said he was ready to succumb to the buzz and go out and buy one.

"I didn't want to feel like I was being manipulated just because everyone else was buying one," Scarcliff said. "Now I can do it on my terms."

There's one born every minute.

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Consumer Confidential runs Wednesdays and Sundays, and occasionally in between. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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