Apple joins Amazon in using fear to sell hardware

Beneath its cheerful veneer, the core of Apple’s iPhone 14 was unusually dark.

From the beginning, the company seemed to warn users that danger lurks everywhere. The Apple Watch’s opening montage had users personally thank Tim Cook for saving them from a series of horrific accidents—including a plane crash and a possible bear attack—and was immediately followed by an in-depth discussion of how the new Apple Watch Series 8 can detect traffic accidents.

Later, the company outlined the many ways an Apple Watch Ultra can keep you out of harm’s way — a promotional video touting sober features that “keep you in situations that let you get lost.” And for the iPhone 14 unveiling, Apple revisited the car wreck scenario — yes, the phone also detects accidents — and touted a new feature to communicate with emergency services via satellite, along with a grim video of rescue personnel trying to save a couple of iPhone users via helicopter.

It was a little too disturbing and a little too familiar: Apple, it seems, took a page right out of Amazon’s playbook.

Safety rotation

As I wrote a few years ago, Amazon is increasingly turning to fear mongering as the focus of its smart home efforts. Devices like the Echo speaker, once marketed as a harmless device for playing music or checking the weather, now function as a way to hear intruders and deter them with simulated dog barks. Amazon’s Ring brand, known for its doorbell cameras, has expanded into home alarm systems, car dash cameras and flying home security drones.

Over the summer, I spent a few weeks looking at the company’s Astro home robot, and I could never figure out what it might be useful for. When I pressed Amazon for examples, the company mainly pointed to home security, relegating a truly impressive piece of hardware to a simple camera on wheels. I lament Amazon’s plans to acquire iRobot, as the robot vacuum maker’s ambitious smart home plans will likely meet a similar fate.

Look, I get it: Fear sells. That in itself isn’t a shocking revelation, and I can understand why big tech companies would be all over it. But the danger for Apple is that fear trading also corrupts. It makes people perceive more risk than actually exists and becomes a cheap haven for otherwise clueless companies. Worse, it serves as a justification for persistent surveillance via cameras and sensors, and we should be skeptical of it, no matter how privacy-conscious a company claims to be.

Call it back

My point is not that Apple should avoid incorporating new security features into its products, or that it should refrain from talking about them. A lot of it sounds really useful, and at the scale of the iPhone it’s sure to keep Tim Cook’s letter of praise in his inbox.

However, if Apple pushes these features too far, it sends a message that you’re not really safe unless you buy an iPhone and an Apple Watch. This is gross from a marketing point of view and worrying in terms of what the company chooses to focus on.

In other words: Apple has a lot more to offer than protection from freak accidents. If he can’t figure out how to sell us on anything else, that’s a sign of bigger problems.

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