Computing Applications

The Most Ancient Marketing

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Steve Jobs, illustration

Before Apple, Steve Jobs famously went to India with his college friend Dan Kottke. While I never had occasion to talk to Jobs about it, I did hear many a tale from Kottke, and I have a theory I wish I had a chance to try out on Jobs.

Jobs loved the Beatles and referred to them fairly often, so I’ll use some Beatles references. When John Lennon was a boy, he once recalled seeing Elvis in a movie and suddenly thought to himself, "I want that job!" The theory is that Jobs saw gurus in India, focal points of love and respect, surrounded by devotees, and he similarly thought to himself, "I want that job!"

This observation is not meant as a criticism, and certainly not as an insult. It simply provides an explanatory framework for what made Jobs a unique figure.

For instance, he liberally used the guru’s tactic of treating certain devotees badly from time to time as a way of making them more devoted. I heard members of the original Macintosh team confess that they succumbed. They were tangibly stunned by it, repeatedly. They recognized it happening in real time, and yet they consented. Jobs would scold and humiliate people and somehow elicit an ever more intense determination to attempt to win his approval, or more precisely, his pleasure.

Jobs imported the marketing techniques of India’s gurus to the business of computation.

The process is described in an essay by Alan Watts on how to be a guru that was well known around the time Apple was first taking off. The successful guru is neither universally nor arbitrarily scornful to followers, but there should be enough randomness to keep them guessing and off guard. When praise comes, it should be utterly piercing and luminous, so as to make the recipient feel as though they’ve never known love before that moment.

Apple’s relationship with its customers often followed a similar course. There would be a pandemic of bleating about a problem, such as a phone that lost calls when touched a certain way, and somehow the strife seemed to further cement customer devotion instead of driving them away. What other tech company has experienced such a thing? Jobs imported the marketing techniques of India’s gurus to the business of computation.

Another way in which Jobs emulated the practices of gurus is in the psychology of pseudo-asceticism.

Consider the way he used physical spaces. Jobs always created personal and work spaces that were spare like an ashram, but it is the white Apple store interior that most recalls the ashram. White conveys purity, a holy place beyond reproach. At the same time, the white space must be highly structured and formal. There must be a tangible aura of discipline and adherence to the master’s plan.

The glass exteriors and staircases of elite Apple stores go further. They are temples, and I imagine they might someday be repurposed for use along those lines. (Maybe, some decades from now, our home 3D printers will just pop out the latest gadgets, leaving stores empty.)

There is yet another Beatles reference to bring up: It was Yoko Ono who first painted a New York City artist’s loft white. Conceptual avant-garde art invites people to project whatever they will project into it, and yet the artist offering a white space, or the silence of John Cage’s "4’33"" still becomes well known. This is the template followed by Apple marketing.

A dual message is conveyed. The white void is empty, awaiting you and almost anything you project into it. The exception is the surrounding institution—the business—which is not something to be projected away.

While that setup might seem to only benefit the establishment offering the white space, there is actually a benefit to the visitor who projects what they will into it. It’s like a good parent or lover who will listen endlessly without complaint but also sets boundaries. Narcissism can then be indulged without the terror of being out of touch or out of control. This formula is a magnet for human longings.

It’s all about you, iThis and iThat, but we will hold you, so you won’t screw yourself up. Of course, that’s not really a possible bargain. To the degree you buy into the ashram, you do give up a certain degree of yourself. Maybe that’s not a bad thing. It’s like how Apple customers experience culture in general through the lens of Apple curation whenever they use a tablet. Maybe it’s the right mix for some people. But one ought to be aware.

It’s tempting to ridicule this aspect of Job’s legacy, but everything people do is infused with some degree of duplicity. This is doubly true of marketing.

Putting the duplicity up front might be best. Back to the Beatles: Lennon’s "Sexy Sadie" ridiculed the guru shtick, while McCartney’s "Fool on the Hill" praised it, and they were singing about the same guru. These two songs could well be applied to the appeal of Apple under Jobs. Yes, he manipulated people and was often not a nice guy, and yet he also did either elicit or anticipate the passions of his devotees, over and over. (No one can say what the mix of eliciting versus anticipating really was.)

Jobs didn’t just use pseudo-asceticism for marketing. He wielded purist fanaticism so as to have power in the world of nerds. This is how it came to be that Jobs is so often remembered as an "inventor," though he rarely was one. His genius was not technical, but he was a genius at manipulating technical minds.

An example is Jobs’ obsession with engineering beautiful fonts into personal computers. While plenty of people wanted this (Don Knuth comes to mind), it wasn’t easy to make such a luxury into a high-priority item in the engineering culture that drove early PC companies. But Jobs often mentioned his pride at having done it.

It is perhaps surprising that so few figures in tech companies have been able to push engineers around enough to enforce principles of elegance and simplicity, as understood by non-engineers. Apple’s commercial success has created a better atmosphere for such things in all the companies. But how did Jobs do it in the first place?

My impression, based on a number of interactions I witnessed over many years, is that Jobs traded one form of obsessive, principled nerdiness against another. It was useless for a typical designer or marketing person to plead with engineers during the early years of personal computers. Engineers had airtight criteria and data, and that trumped mere opinions and intuitions. But Jobs didn’t plead. He declared even more rigid and exacting criteria.

Jobs won the arms race of control freakery. He remains the only figure in a non-engineering role I have ever seen win this race against engineers outright.

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