The Apple Illusion: Exposing cultural branding, myth markets, and consumer culture

Written by: Be Lee

Iconic brands are stitched to the fabric of society. They are a part of our identity and our identity is part of them. This symbiotic relationship between consumers and icons permeates to all cultural products: movies, music, and social media are all parts of a bigger whole; they all exist interdependently among each other, capitalizing on and reinforcing myth markets. From Nike to Coca-cola, Lady Gaga to Lil Wayne, and everything in between, icons influence our society and ideologies within it. This paper will look at the genealogy of Apple Inc. and carefully examine its rise to iconicity. Furthermore, it will use this research to argue that iconic brands leach onto myth markets by manipulating cultural anxieties and consumer desires and portraying themselves as archetypes.

When Apple Inc. (herein referred to as Apple) first emerged in 1976 it was just a small startup in the elusive and frigid world of computer technology. Corporate giants like IBM dominated this world, and in it, computers were viewed as machines separate from the human self – something certainly never to be a part of everyday life. During this time, technology was somewhat feared by the general populace and there was unrest with traditional authority as being corrupt and untrustworthy (Lusensky, 2014). This lead to a counterculture movement and cultural shift that would pave the way for new beginnings – an “out with the old, in with the new” mentality was adopted by the younger (hippie) generation during the 1960s and 70s.

Iconic brands, like Apple, attach themselves to myth markets in an inconspicuous attempt to make consumers believe that actively participating in consumer culture – by buying their products – will make the myth a part of their own reality.

Apple capitalized on this cultural shift by exemplifying the counterculture movement’s revolutionary ideologies of feminism, liberation, and togetherness – the rejection of authority. This is not to say that hippie counterculture began with the introduction of Apple but that cultural shifts happen slowly, and new cultural ideologies are created from these shifts. Therefore, Apple realized this shift and embodied new ideals that emerged from it.

Cultural contradictions in ideologies during this time are what Holt argued leads to the performing of identity myths – these are “ongoing revisions of national (and occasionally global) myths that provide collective salves for major contradictions in society” (2005, p.372). Apple formed its myth based on a cultural shift from traditional authority and obedience, to freedom from authority and tradition, clinging to the latter. From this myth, Apple was introduced as a counterculture hero, revolutionizing and humanizing technology. It did not manifest this myth on its own, it acted more as a parasite addressing cultural anxieties and representing itself as a brand that the new generation could identify with (Holt D. , 2005).

Holt further explains this phenomenon as the emergence of myth markets where “a wide range of cultural products gather around one particular genre of myth as early market successes demonstrate that audiences identify strongly with its narrative” (2006, p. 372). Myth markets are largely progressed by cultural products like movies, TV shows, music, sports, and books but rarely majorly influenced by brands (Holt D. , 2005). Some examples of myth markets are: the sustainability myth; the craft myth; and the self-actualization myth, which will later be related to Apple. Brands become iconic by performing identity myths through embodying the ideals of booming myth markets through strategic marketing techniques and creative innovations; they can also perform identity myths through:

  • Status competition – people look to certain brands to symbolize their uniqueness and to separate them from mass culture. For example, Apple users versus PC users.
  • Subculture affiliation ­– members of a particular subculture allow a brand to symbolize its ethos.
  • Journalist packaging – magazines or other media outlets may run a story on a particular brand, linking it to a current myth market in order to connect with their audiences.
  • Film props – it is very common for movies and TV shows to incorporate brand images or products as a way of relating to the audience. Brands can also make product placement deals with movies and TV shows as a form of advertising.

(Holt D. B., 2006)

This type of branding is grossly opportunistic and myth markets should be understood as being based on archetypal myths, which, according to renowned psychologist Carl Jung, are evolutionary innate qualities deep in the human psyche (Lusensky, 2014). These qualities are the premise of Jungian Archetype Theory, which asserts that humans all share a universal unconsciousness that has been shaped in our minds for ages (Tsai, 2006). Archetypes can be further understood as symbols for basic human desires like change; self-actualization; belonging & togetherness; and order (Cawthorne, 2011). Myth markets themselves are not innate qualities but they are created from identification with archetypal myths “directly related to the unconscious images that every individual constructs during the course of life” (Tsai, 2006, p. 650). Additionally, myths are valued based on what they bring to the human experience, whether or not there is any immense truth behind them is irrelevant. For example, the American Dream myth gives people hope for a rich and prosperous future but it falsely represents affluence as being easily attainable in America. The figure below outlines the twelve master archetypes from Jungian theory.

the-power-of-archetypes-in-brand-creation-31-638

(Cawthorne, 2011)

From this diagram, and understanding the sociocultural context during the 1960s and 70s, it is clear that Apple manifested itself as the archetypal hero, symbolizing change and togetherness. However, this did not make Apple an instant icon, it simply embedded it in a thriving myth market of that time period. Iconic brands are not developed overnight and based on Holt’s cultural branding model, brands do not become iconic through consistency, they do so by adapting to cultural shifts, and addressing ever changing anxieties and emerging myth markets (2005). Apple’s history is proof of this phenomenon and essential to its rise to iconicity.

To understand Apple’s brand image you must also understand that one of its original founders, Steve Jobs, was and will always be remembered as the archetypal visionary of the company (Lusensky, 2014). Jobs’ personality embodied the attributes of the magician archetype, that is someone “who finds opportunities at every turn. The Magician experiences life as a flow and stays open to all possibilities” (Lusensky, 2014, p. 67). Jobs did, however, spend some time away from Apple in the 90s, as the company’s success dwindled; this was a transitional phase for both him and cultural ideologies. During this phase, Jobs summoned his inner magician and triumphantly returned to Apple as its CEO in 1997 bringing huge changes to the company; changes which are attributed to the company’s massive success and icon status today (Lusensky, 2014).

Upon his return to Apple Jobs recognized that Apple could no longer play the role of counterculture hero, as that era had long since passed. This was mostly because the digital age triggered another cultural shift and birthed new myth markets centred on an everlasting search for self-actualization and the ability to transcend our biologic limits (Tsai, 2006). This transcendence is, of course, achieved through technological advancements and innovation – like smart phones and Web 2.0, that have made it simple for us to connect with anyone, anytime we please (Lusensky, 2014). Steve Jobs and Apple recognized this myth market and latched onto it.

The magic quality that Jobs portrayed began to extend to Apple’s brand image and its products, which seem to have a magical effect over consumers (Lusensky, 2014). The Apple we know today thrives on making technology simple for everyone to use and to be able to connect in magical ways. Even in its keynote speeches introducing new products to the public, Apple executives use words like “magic” and “incredible,” in order to mystify its products. Just as magicians make people believe in the magic quality of a card in an illusion, Apple makes consumers regard its products as magical through its cultural branding techniques.

In its most recent keynote speech for Fall 2014, Apple introduced its newest product, the Apple Watch. In introducing the watch, it showed a video clip of the watch seemingly performing tasks on its own, in a magical type of way. The watch is positioned on its own, with a divine white backdrop, which is common in Apple advertisements. Apple’s Senior VP of Design, Jony Ivy began to describe the watch by saying that, “it’s driven apple from the beginning; this compulsion to take incredibly powerful technology and make it accessible, relevant, and ultimately personal” (Apple, 2014). He further describes the watches personalized characteristics and says, “you can’t determine a boundary between the physical object and the software” and that the watch “connects with the wearer at an intimate level to embrace individuality and inspire desire” (Apple, 2014). This type of description exemplifies Apple’s ability to capitalize on the new and thriving myth market created in the digital era – one surrounded by the need to satisfy individual desires and make numinous connections or the self-actualization myth.

Understanding Apple’s transitional stage from counterculture hero to free-spirited magician, it can be said that its success and rise to iconicity was propelled by its ability do adapt to cultural shifts. This is what Holt described as the cultural branding model, where brands delivery identity value to consumers by addressing cultural anxieties (2005). He further states that performing identity myths that confront these anxieties from a mystified world outside of the consumer’s reality creates iconic brands. This type of branding is explicitly utilized by Apple in its ability to perform the identity myth that its products intimately connect with the consumer, allowing them to transcend human limitations through technology. This identity myth eases cultural anxieties stemming from contradictions in the fast pace nature of the digital era, where people are constantly searching for individual expression and to bring new enchantment to a world that has become jaded by consumer culture and corporate advertising (Tacey, 1998). Apple successfully articulated to the self-actualization myth market by addressing its desires and creating products that allowed people to ritualistically experience the myth in everyday life; or as a popular advertisement for the introduction of the Apple iPad simply said, “touching is believing.”

In performing this identity myth, Apple seemingly attempts to express to consumers that its products create meaning and wholeness to the human experience in the empty and cold capitalist world we live in. However, Jungian theory would argue that there is no wholeness in the world until the dark side of human nature is completely accepted but the New “digital” Age ignores this dark side of human nature and the evil realities of capitalism (Tacey, 1998). Apple’s myth, thus, addresses a cultural contradiction in the digital age, that is, the need for self-actualization in the search for wholeness. How can one find wholeness while striving to satisfy selfish desires? Jungian thought understands this to be a “phony” wholeness, where “in its craving for bliss and enjoyment, its emphasis on escape through transcendence, the New Age lacks the substance and the grounding in the real that would make an integration of darkness possible” (Tacey, p. 11). This point argues that in the performing identity myths, iconic brands like Apple provide a false sense of wholeness to myth markets, hiding the harsh realities behind the myth.

Myth markets undermine the exploitive nature (darkness) of consumer culture by perpetuating belief in myths (imaginary worlds), rather than reality. According to Holt, myth markets are produced through the reconstructing of myths to further develop emerging ideologies and that they are brought forth by many cultural products like film, novels, sports teams, television shows and music (2006). He further argues that it’s not brands, but it’s these other cultural products that do most of the work in creating myth markets and that iconic brands are more like “ideological parasites” that become successful by feeding off of myth markets (Holt D. B., 2006). Iconic brands, like Apple, attach themselves to myth markets in an inconspicuous attempt to make consumers believe that actively participating in consumer culture – by buying their products – will make the myth a part of their own reality. Apple wants people to actually believe that if you buy a new iPhone, you will finally realize and be able to harness your full potential, or that a $2500 Macbook will enable you to express your creativity in ways that a $1000 PC with similar hardware specs could only dream of.

The problem with myth markets, as stated by Holt, is that “modern myths work to naturalize the status quo, containing otherwise destabilizing changes in society” and “social and political problems in the USA have been increasingly managed through mythmaking and consumption, rather than through democratic debate” (2006, p. 375). This is frightening, of course, because it means we now live in a society built around myths, rather than actual truths. It’s disturbing to think that people lineup outside of stores for days and go crazy over the newest iPhone release but cannot be bothered to show up and vote on Election Day. Additionally, more and more people get their news and current affair updates through social networking sites like Facebook, rather than reading and comparatively analyzing reputable media outlets.

There are a vast amount of profound socioeconomic issues that stem from consumer culture and would lead to a whole other debate entirely. The pervasive effects of capitalism, however, cannot be ignored in understanding the exploitative role iconic brands play in myth markets. At its most objective understanding, consumer culture is a threat to sustainability and humanity because the mass production and consumption of commodities is both grossly wasteful and exploitative; this is the shadow of capitalist nature that is masked by myth markets and, therefore, often ignored or misunderstood by society. Moreover, by attaching archetypal myths to products, like the magic of Apple products, iconic brands disassociate any negative effects due to the mass production and consumption of their products.

Understanding how iconic brands are formed and how they utilize myth markets in order to perform identity myths through cultural branding, it is evident that Apple and other brand icons capitalize on the cultural anxieties of these markets by commodifying their myths. This myth commodification is achieved through marketing techniques and the creation of products that address particular anxieties and contradictions brought forth from cultural shifts and transitions towards new and evolving ideologies. In this magnification of myths, iconic, or better yet mythological brands – with great help from other cultural products – normalize consumer culture and proliferate capitalist hegemony.

 

References

Apple. (2014, September 10). Apple – September Event 2014 [Video file]Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=38IqQpwPe7s

Cawthorne, Bianca. 2011. The power of archetypes in brand creation.             http://www.slideshare.net/biancacawthorne/the-power-of-archetypes-inbrand-creation (accessed October 23, 2014).

Holt, D. B. (2005). How societies desire brands: Using cultural theory to explain brand symbolism. In S. Ratneshwar et al. (Eds.), Inside Consumption (pp.273-291). New York: Routledge.

Holt, D. B. (2006). Jack DanieI’s America: Iconic brands as an ideological parasites and proselytizers. Journal of Consumer Culture, 6(3), 355­377. doi: 10.1177/1469540506068683

Lusensky, M.J. (2014). Did you bite the magic apple? Exploring the symbolic meaning of Apple, Inc. Jung Journal: Culture & Psyche, 8(1), 57-70. doi: 10.1080/19342039.2014.841445

Tsai, S.P. (2006). Investigating archetype- Icon transformation in brand         marketing. Marketing Intelligence & Planning, 24(6), 648–663. doi: 10.1108/02634500610701708

Tacey, D. (1998). Jung and the New Age: A study in contrasts. Retrieved from http://www.jung2.org/ArticleLibrary/taceyd1.pdf

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