On Friday, September 20, the new iPhone models 5S and 5C were presented for sale at Apple stores around the world. An onslaught of media coverage of customers waiting on line for and purchasing the new devices ensued. Yet, we have still seen very little coverage of the report published by China Labor Watch on July 29 that documented rampant abuse of laborers and violation of Chinese labor law at Pegatron Shanghai, where these new iPhones are produced. The photo pairings that follow–each composed of a photo from media coverage of Friday’s iPhone launch and a photo from the China Labor Watch report–are meant to close the loop between production and consumption. The information included with each pairing is taken from the photo captions provided by the Los Angeles Times, and from the China Labor Watch report titled “Apple’s unkept promises: cheap iPhones come at high cost to Chinese workers.” They are presented without editorial comment for your thoughtful consideration.
Despite the recent scandals regarding Apple’s business practices, it has succeeded at cultivating a brand to which we feel positive emotional attachment. In three previous posts, I showed that the company accomplishes this with commercials that associate its products with playfulness, sentimentality, and cool youthfulness. The most prominent theme, however, and I suspect the most powerful aspect of the company’s emotional branding strategy, is the hope it cultivates in each of us of who we could be by virtue of using the company’s products. Read the full article at Sociological Images: Seeing is Believing.
Suicide at Foxconn. Poisoned workers. Colluding to inflate the price of e-books. Tax evasion (albeit, legal). Shady suppliers who can’t toe the line of labor or environmental laws in China. Apple’s reputation has taken a hit in recent years, but it sales have continued to climb. How does Apple maintain its economic dominance in light of such powerful scandals? With an exceptionally strong brand that taps into our hopes and cultivates positive emotions. Read the full article at Sociological Images: Seeing is Believing.
Apple has long considered itself a renegade, a breaker of conventions, and a change-maker, and education has been a realm in which it seeks to have a revolutionary impact. Apple is well-known for its long-standing presence in classrooms, and its executives maintain, “Education is in our DNA.”
Apple is proud of its relationships with schools, as shown by the company’s robust education section of their website. While researching Apple’s education customers for my previous post, “The Top 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Apple,” one customer profile, which includes a short film, caught my attention.
The “Apple in Education Profile” of Renda Fuzhong (RDFZ) Xishan in Beijing, China, explains that a revolution in education is underway in the country, thanks in part to use of Apple’s MacBook Pro and iPad in the school’s 7-9th grade classrooms. Breaking from what is described as the dysfunctional Chinese educational model focused on “core knowledge” and “rigorous testing,” with the help of Apple products the school has implemented a successful new model that promotes “personal growth, creativity, and innovation.”
The description of the school’s “experimental” model of education resonates with contemporary American values and trends present in Apple’s marketing. In my study with Gabriela Hybel of over 200 Apple commercials that have aired in the US since 1984, we found that one of the key themes that courses through them is that Apple products allow their users to cultivate and express intellectual and artistic creativity. A video profile of the school and its program resonates with this theme, and provides an inspiring take on the what Apple means to the youth of China (Note: Please watch the video! Doing so will allow you to see for yourself the great contrast in how students from different backgrounds experience Apple).
As I read the profile of RDFZ and watched the video about the school, I couldn’t help but think that this did not seem to be an accurate depiction of what Apple means to the youth of China. While I certainly think it is great for these students that they are receiving a top-notch and technologically innovative education, a little research revealed that RDFZ Xishan is considered the most prestigious school in Beijing. While it is described by Apple as a public school, it is the sister school of Phillips Academy in Massachusetts and Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire–both exclusive private schools. The middle school is a part of the RDFZ high school, which funnels students to the most elite universities in China, the UK, and the US. It is also a part of the G20 Schools, a collection of elite and mostly private secondary schools around the world. In short, this school serves the children of Beijing’s wealthy elite–a minuscule portion of China’s youth.
When we think about what Apple means to the youth of China, we have to consider not only the privileged few who might benefit from using the company’s products in the classroom, but the hundreds of thousands of young workers assembling Apple products in factories throughout the country. Their experience of Apple is vastly different from that of the students of RDFZ Xishan. A recent report from China Labor Watch, which details numerous violations of Chinese labor laws and the employment of minors at Apple suppliers, makes this fact shockingly clear.
Blame Mike Daisey. He drew me into this mess of a research project with his appearance on This American Life in January 2012. Like many, I was enraptured and sickened by his description of the work conditions and lives of young Chinese laborers at the Foxconn facility in Shenzhen, China that assembles iPhones, and now iPads. What I learned in that podcast made me angry, as both an owner of Apple products and as a critical sociologist who focuses on globalization and labor. Daisey’s account of conditions at Foxconn and the experiences of Chinese workers sparked my initial cursory investigation into Apple’s supply chain and their stance on corporate social responsibility, by way of the their annual Supplier Responsibility Reports. Then, a couple of months later, This American Life aired a retraction episode that revealed that Daisey had fictionalized his account. While host Ira Glass noted that nothing Daisey said was actually untrue, he had not seen all that he said he had, but rather had folded into his monologue the documented accounts of others. Glass, and many Apple consumers, seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief, and the affair was rather quickly swept under the rug by the consuming public and the press.
These events made me deeply curious about the brand power of Apple. I wondered, how does a company that receives such bad press persist in its popularity? How could it be that, rather than taking a hit in the aftermath of a vicious exposé of labor conditions at their suppliers, Apple revenues surged and broke records throughout 2012? So, I embarked on a really big research project–bigger, more complex, and vastly more difficult than any project I have ever delved into before. I seek to identify all of Apple’s suppliers, map their supply chain, illuminate their financial structure, and understand their brand power here in the US and around the world. While I have a couple of lengthier and more in-depth pieces on this research in the works that will be published in a few months, I wanted to share with you some highlights from the research thus far. Here we go.