How Apple Commoditized Ethics To Gain Users

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By Germain Chastel and Hugues Chastel

Ethics have been a major point of contention between consumers and brands over the past 12 months. Between the Cambridge Analytica-Facebook scandal and Grindr selling user data that revealed sensitive medical information, among numerous other scandals, consumers have become increasingly suspicious of how brands conduct themselves. To examine how a company’s perceived ethics can affect the bottom line, NewtonX conducted an in-depth expert interview with a former Apple marketing executive, as well as with three advertising executives at media outlets with 200M+ monthly readerships. Analysis of these interviews revealed a movement in advertising and consumerism, one that Apple in particular has been adroit at latching onto: ethical consumerism.

Just last week, Apple CEO Tim Cook revealed that he spends too much time on his phone, and is planning to release iOS features that will help users keep their technology addiction in check. Similarly, Apple has been vocal about users’ data privacy— even before the Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal, the company differentiated itself from Google and Facebook through its hardware-based business model (as opposed to an advertising-based one). And to top it all off, Apple has been a frontrunner in environmentalism as early as 2009, thereby establishing itself as a frontrunner in the ethical materials sourcing movement.

The company’s emphasis on ethics is part of an ethical consumerism movement in advertising that has been highly effective — think: the Dove Soap anti photoshopping campaigns or Tom’s Shoes giving shoes to underprivileged third-world citizens. All four of the experts interviewed noted that there is an irony to ethical consumerism from an advertising standpoint: after all, the goal of marketing/advertising is making money, not making the world a better place. But is it possible to do both? Based on insights from the Apple and news outlet advertising/marketing executives, I examined the three areas in which Apple commoditized ethics, and analyze how truly ethical these decisions were.

Apple respects your privacy… except when it needs your data

In 2016, Apple embarked on tackling what Mary Meeker termed the privacy paradox: how to build products that are tailored to user preferences without spying on users. The project involved what is called Differential Privacy, which uses data perturbation to obfuscate the identity of users as discoverable through their user data by introducing “noise” into customer data sets. Since Apple introduced the measure it’s also been adopted by Uber, Microsoft, and to a certain extent, Google.

But according to NewtonX data scientists, there’s a loophole in this technique: it claims that even if you can identify the customer, you cannot claim that the customer’s data was used substantially in the end result, which grants the company clemency. The strategy relies not on privacy itself, but on the fact that an individual cannot tell whether their data has substantially impacted the result.

This is not to say that Apple is secretly violating its claims to privacy protection; rather that its solution for data protection is far from perfect.

Apple cares about the environment… But they still want you to buy hundreds of environmentally harmful devices

Apple has an entire section of its website devoted to environmentalism — from forest sustainability, to renewable energy sources, to iPhone recycling programs, Apple seems determined to take on any and every environmental issue it can. And while the efforts are admirable there are two glaring issues with them: the first, is that the lithium-ion battery, which is used in every single Apple device, is sourced from finite natural resources in areas that are known for unethical labor practices. The second issue is that Apple necessarily encourages consumerism by constantly rolling out new products and forcing consumers to trade in 1-3 year old phones for new ones.

To illustrate just how damaging this is, consider that from 2013 to 2014 Apple increased its overall carbon footprint, even though its emissions intensity (or emissions per revenue generated) has fallen steadily since 2008. This is due solely to the fact that Apple increased its production so much from year to year. So as long as Apple continues to encourage users to upgrade and buy more, it is increasing its carbon footprint, even if its emissions per phone go down.

Furthermore, even if a new iPhone is built in a solar-powered factory, it’s still shipped by plane, which burns fossil fuels, and is charged on electric grids that are powered by coal or natural gas. Which brings us to the second problem: the lithium-ion battery. As we recently wrote, the lithium-ion battery starts degrading as soon as it is manufactured, and is sourced from finite materials in areas with questionable labor practices. As long as Apple products depend on the lithium-ion battery, they will be harming the environment.

Apple wants you to stop using your devices… by buying more Apple devices

Silicon Valley’s latest fad is “digital wellness”, a concept so ripe with cognitive dissonance that it’s somewhat surprising how wholeheartedly consumers have embraced it. The former Apple marketing executive cited the rise of mediation apps as an example of this trend. It’s no wonder, then, that Apple recently announced that the latest iOS update would include a suite of built-in tools to limit distractions and encourage users to unplug from the apps where they spend most of their time. In addition to a greater degree of “Do Not Disturb” controls, the new iOS will also have a dashboard for device usage insights called Screen Time.

However, alongside these features Apple also announced numerous additions to iOS that seem precisely designed to increase phone engagement. From Memoji, a personalized emoji feature that has users stare at the screen to animate an emoji with the user’s facial features, to the native Photo app which now suggests photos to share with friends. A demo even showed a user biking while scrolling through productivity apps on an Apple Watch.

The irony is rich, but the reality is that many users (including some of us at NewtonX) will love the new device addiction controls that come with the latest iOS. While the company’s motives may be suspect, the features will have the intended effect: increased brand loyalty and more hype around the Apple brand.

Are Commoditized Ethics Still Ethics?

It’s hard to criticize Apple’s ethical missions — after all, a good deed is a good deed, regardless of motives. Apple may just be touting its environmentalism, data protection, and technology rehab apps because it knows this will contribute to sales, but there’s a reason this strategy works. “Consumers want businesses to care about the effect they are having on the world, and the line is thin enough between acting like you care, and actually caring, that Apple is able to get away with it,” explained an advertising executive at a large news organization. At the end of the day, even if it’s just for sales, Apple may be the lesser of many evils in the technology sector today.

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Germain Chastel is the CEO and Founder of NewtonX.

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