How Apple built the greatest hype machine in the history of the world

That nation impatiently awaits huge news of iPhone tweaks and the return of the wristwatch. What's wrong with us?

Published September 9, 2014 12:30PM (EDT)

     (AP/Mark Lennihan)
(AP/Mark Lennihan)

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How does Apple get away with it? In the 24 hours before Apple's unveiling of the iPhone 6 -- and who knows what else -- the entire tech press engaged in a riot of speculation, rumor aggregation, superfluous analysis and Cupertino-Kremlinology the likes of which we have haven't seen since ... well, since the last time Apple announced incremental upgrades to a product first released in 2007. Any other CEO of a consumer technology company would gladly give up the rights to his first-born child to get such attention. But no one else comes close.

And that's not even counting the millions of people who don't have the excuse that they are paid to cover technology, but who can still be counted on to watch Apple's recording of today's event. Our mass willingness to subject ourselves to a tightly controlled and scripted public relations event is remarkable -- and maybe even a little scary.

There are a couple of obvious reasons why Apple still commands the publicity high ground, even though it is generally agreed that the Tim Cook-era has yet to unveil a single new product worthy of culture-wide jubilation. The first is Apple's legacy. It's easy to be a skeptic, but history doesn't lie: The iPod, iPhone and iPad were enormous breakthrough products. Steve Jobs was nothing if not a great salesman, and when you combine superlative salesmanship with insanely great products, you will reap the accompanying benefits. The apparent pace of innovation may have slowed since Steve Jobs' death, but that doesn't mean we're not curious to see what -- if anything -- is next. What if the rumored iWatch blows every other fitness tracker/smartwatch out of the water? It's the job of a reporter to be cynical, but frankly, Apple has a track record that other companies do not. The iPod, iPhone and iPad launches were all preceded by hefty cynicism -- but the cynics were wrong.

A second reason is the sheer efficiency of Apple's marketing machine. Two weeks ago, 9to5mac published a nine-part epic on how Apple has historically handled the press. The inescapable conclusion is that Apple, since at least as far back as the return of Steve Jobs from exile, has simply been better at guiding press narratives and expectations than any other consumer technology company. That they have been aided in this task by the rise of an Apple-blogging media contingent that can be counted on for fanboy adulation is self-evident -- and the envy of every other consumer tech company. But that doesn't mean that Apple hasn't also excelled in controlling the message.

However, a kind of inverse corollary to the point about Steve Jobs' great salesmanship also holds. If you don't have great products, no amount of snake oil can keep the machine greased forever. So the pertinent question, in the current moment, is why do we keep caring? (Because even the moaning and griping and meta-commentary about the stupidity of all the commentary is still a form of caring.) Why are we still catering to this big con?

I think we buy in because we know that, whether or not Apple delivers mere incremental upgrades or an astonishing breakthrough isn't the key driver of our fascination. Our current era is mediated by technology to an unprecedentedly immersive degree. Apple has been one of the most important players in determining the shape of that mediation. Apple's design decisions have enormous impact on how we live in the world. In the U.S., 60 million people no longer watch a single sitcom on a Tuesday night, as they did in the 1970s, but it's not beyond the bounds of possibility that, worldwide, 60 million people will buy the next iPhone in the four months after it has been released -- and hundreds of millions more will buy knockoff versions of it. For better or worse, the products that Apple releases bind us together as a culture.

So of course we want to know what's next.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Apple Ipad Iphone Iphone 6 Ipod Iwatch Steve Jobs Tim Cook