In 1984, Apple aired one of the most famous television ads ever made. Shortly after the second-half kickoff of Super Bowl XVIII, viewers found themselves transfixed by an alternate-reality nightmare.
Hairless drones shuffle along a bleak corridor, outfitted in plain cotton frocks reminiscent of the uniforms worn by peasant workers in communist China. After filing into a grand hall, the colourless automatons take seats in front of a huge screen. On it, a larger-than-life Big Brother recites thought-control propaganda from behind dark glasses:
"We have created, for the first time in all history, a garden of pure ideology; where each worker may bloom, secure from the pests purveying contradictory thoughts. Our Unification of Thought is more powerful a weapon than any fleet or army on earth."
And then, colour-a woman in bright orange running shorts sprints down the centre aisle carrying a sledge-hammer, masked guards in hot pursuit. With a desperate grunt, she heaves the hammer at the screen, which explodes in a flash of pure white. A decidedly more sympathetic voice reassures us, "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh, and you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984.'"
Ridley Scott's sixty-second, $800,000 dystopian vision of the then-present changed not only advertising (the spot is often credited with instigating the Super Bowl "event" advertising craze) but also the way we view computers. The old Apple II was a blippy, blinky box that ran spreadsheet software and Karateka. The new Macintosh was political.
It's ironic then, if not altogether surprising, that last month Apple was accused of using Chinese sweatshops to produce its iPods. In its bid to stay competitive, Apple has outsourced manufacturing to a company with factories in China. While it isn't shocking that the working conditions in these factories may fall shy of ideal, what is shocking is that a month has passed since the story broke and that no one has followed up on it in any meaningful way.
The media and public seem to have heaved their shoulders in a great collective sigh of "Well, what do you expect?" and moved on. The apathy is puzzling. The same allegations that tarnished Nike's reputation and sank Kathy Lee Gifford's seem, so far, to have rolled off Apple's back. But why?
Part of the reason may be that no one can get the facts straight. On June 11, Mail on Sunday, a British newspaper, published a two-page spread detailing the conditions in what it called "iPod City." (The Mirror ran a similar story, available online). It alleged that Foxconn, the company that Apple outsources iPod manufacturing duties to, was paying workers less than Chinese minimum wage and working employees fifteen hours a day. According to the article, the 200,000 workers at its Long Hua plant live in dormitories housing one hundred people. A few days after Mail on Sunday's exposé appeared, Apple issued a statement saying it would conduct an investigation.
Then things got confusing. Foxconn's rebuttal claimed that Mail on Sunday's facts were erroneous; arguing, for example, that the company has only 160,000 employees worldwide. Soon after (according to MacInsider), Foxconn admitted that employees worked eighty extra hours per month, in violation of Chinese labour laws. In the same article, Foxconn is quoted as saying that Apple's inspection had found nothing amiss at the factory. Apple countered that its investigation was not finished.
In other words, there's been a lot of back-and-forth but no new, concrete information in the month since the article first ran. Western news outlets seem content to print the he-said-she-said stories, rather than investigate themselves. Another story from the same time-about new French legislation that could force Apple to close iTunes France unless they make the service compatible with competitors' music players-turns up three times as many articles on Google News as does the Chinese sweatshop story. The news broke at about the same time.
The silence surrounding Apple's sweatshop use is deafening. Is the company's cult of cool strong enough that we will forgive it anything? It is true that the mythology that Apple has created surrounding its brand-that it's something morethan just another tech company-feels untouchable; we believe that Apple is better, without much proof. Apple ranked twenty-fifth in Business Ethics Magazine's 2006 "100 Best Corporate Citizens" list, far behind the less-sexy Hewlett-Packard (ranking second), Dell (ninth) and Texas Instruments (tenth).
Apple loyalists can be fanatic to the point of religiousness. In his book The Cult of Mac, Wired journalist Leander Kahney writes, "Mac loyalty is so well-known, it's a cliché." Case in point-the 1999 film Pirates of Silicon Valley portrayed Steve Jobs as a psychological train wreck whose morally questionable decisions and employee abuse almost destroyed the company. The subsequent success of the iMac and the iPod, however, has proven that the company can take a little bad PR and come out smiling.
Recently, the company's reputation has suffered a number of more serious setbacks. Aside from its alleged sweatshop woes, shareholders are suing over a stock-option grants scandal, and a report by UK-based YouGov's brand awareness index shows Brits' enthusiasm for the brand cooling amid flagging sales. Apple's shiny white armour is showing cracks.
But there's little evidence that public outrage over corporate wrongdoing makes any meaningful impact on a company's sales. YouGov's study was released before the sweatshop and shareholder scandals broke, indicating that it has little to do with ethical reasons. Moreover, a recent study, detailed in The Economist, polled consumers in eight countries about their attitudes towards American companies in the wake of the Iraq War. Though 20 percent said they were consciously avoiding American products, the revenues of three leading American companies-Coca-Cola, McDonald's and Nike-showed that they were growing at least as fast as similar European businesses.
The indifferent reaction to the Apple sweatshop allegations may simply come down to malaise; we-the media included-have become so disillusioned by business scandals that we expect no better. We've resigned ourselves to the fact that no company can "Think Different" and still compete. (We also seem to think of China as a nebulous no man's land where business ethics go to die and we wave it off with a "Well, you know, it's China."). It seems that we treat morally questionable business practices as endemic to capitalism.
From Wired's op-ed on the sweatshop debate: "I'm not naïve enough to expect companies to behave morally like individuals, but..."
From tech-news site ZDNet's posting on the issue: "Is anyone really surprised about this? Apple is in business to make a profit for its shareholders and they're obligated to maximize that profit."
Idealists should take in another viewing of Canadian documentary The Corporation, suggests ZDNet. Get your head out of the clouds, tree-huggers. Face reality.
And there it is. The Corporation's brilliance lies in the perfection of its argument-that the business world's immorality is inevitable. But the anger that motivated the documentary's filmmakers has backfired-we no longer get indignant or outraged. Our minds are so saturated by evidence of corporate wrongdoing that the very people who want to stop it most (the whistle-blowers, the media watchdogs) have left us feeling powerless. We've given up. We expect to be disappointed.
This attitude is dangerous in any situation but it's especially dangerous because we expect more of Apple. This is the company that begged us to dream, to challenge the status quo. Their 1990s ad campaign featured the warm, familiar voice of Richard Dreyfuss over images of Martin Luther King, Amelia Earhart and Gandhi. "Here's to the crazy ones," it gushed, reciting a love letter to those who "change things," "heal," "inspire," and "push the human race forward."
If we let Apple get away with it, we'll let anyone get away with it.
Apple's investigation is ongoing, but the lack of media response may reveal that news outlets are giving Apple the benefit of the doubt. Refusing to fuel the public's hysteria without hard facts is responsible journalism, but consumers and media have to hold Apple's toes to the fire because, although the Apple mythology may be nothing more than a clever marketing ploy, it's a marketing ploy that worked. We thought different.