Apple isn’t so much the company that we love to love – though the continuing popularity of its products certainly testifies to that – than the one that we’d hate to hate. No matter how egregious its tax avoidance, no matter how many negative headlines gather around its financial affairs, no matter how cynically it moves cash around from tax haven to tax haven, very little of that public repugnance ever finds its way into an Apple Store. It is as if, dazzled by the technological marvels of the iPhone X, even the most hardened leftie finds their moral anger melts like lemon drops when faced with face recognition software. When some bearded hipster in cobalt Apple Store T-shirt demonstrates the mesmeric powers of the Apple Watch we forget all about the schools and hospitals left underfunded by Apple’s refusal to pay its fair share of taxes.
Apple is sometimes talked about by those who work for it as a “cult” – sometimes with positive as well as negative connotations. Yet the whole world, at least since Apple’s product-led revival a decade ago (first iPhone in 2007, first iPad in 2010), seems to have joined this modern day religion. Like trying to talk sense about L Ron Hubbard to a Scientologist, persuading an Apple fan that maybe their religion has some flaws and that Steve Jobs wasn’t quite saintly is a universally fruitless exercise. Worse, you run the risk in such an encounter of getting brainwashed yourself. Worse still, for many of us those two entities – the enamoured Apple product user and the enraged citizen angry with the tax thing live inside one brain, but apparently oblivious to one another. I believe the psychologists call this “cognitive dissonance”.
So we’re very mixed up about Apple, but then again it’s not that unusual. Bad publicity, being a poor corporate citizen, treating your customers badly – if your brand is strong enough you can get away with it. What difference did “Dieselgate” really make to Volkswagen’s sales? Not much, after a while. Did the “scandal” of Ryanair’s cancelled flights put that many people off booking with them? Frankly? No. Go a few years back and corporate history is littered with events that were supposedly enough to finish a company off but never did – “Formula Shell” petrol once damaged engines (now forgotten); the Sunday Times laughably fell for the Hitler’s Diaries hoax (still on newstands); Perrier water once had benzene found in it (still, or sparkling, on sale); Barclays Bank carried on operating in apartheid-era South Africa (net damage nil).
Read the reviews of Apple products online and they are often ridiculously fawning and gushing. Maybe some are fake, but I’d be surprised if all were. Apple products from the very first home computer have had a special quality, it’s perfectly fair to say – focused on the user and vastly superior in so many ways to the old pre-Windows PCs. When the company was going through its darkest days in the 1990s some even bought an Apple because they felt sorry for the company and wanted to help save it. Even now, as the most valuable company in the history of the world according to its stock market valuation, and with a famously reticent approach to financial transparency and taxation issues, it still retains this hippyish, vaguely bohemian, anti-corporate, Daniel-beats-Goliath image.
I’d love to predict the end of Apple, via a global boycott brought on by its failings as a corporate entity; but no-one believes that will happen. We already know that Apple has this great big mound of cash, and the only surprise is where it might pop up next. Ireland one year, now Jersey. Maybe next time it’ll head for the Caribbean or perhaps Micronesia; Trinidad and Tobago is an especially welcoming home for corporate money looking for a tan. Meanwhile that cash pile keeps getting bigger with every Apple product we rush to buy. Maybe the real scandal is the Apple health scare – the very sight and feel of its glassy presence cradled in our eager hands is enough to erode our moral sensibilities and wipe our own memory of how naughty tax avoidance really is. Not immoral, quite, nor amoral, this phenomenon, but it deserves a trendy label of some sort. Maybe we could call it Apple iMorality.
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