Apple Strikes a Foreboding Tone with Big Ad on Privacy

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Well, Freckle IoT and Killi Founder and CEO Neil Sweeney was right when he predicted in this forum over two months ago that Apple would make privacy a major theme in 2019. Logically following CEO Tim Cook’s beef with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Apple released last week a video ad that decisively stakes out its position on the issue.

Apple, which does not, as in the cases of Big Tech rivals Facebook and Alphabet, command an advertising business reliant on sharing a massive repository of consumer data, will indeed take advantage of its secure position in the market to take the lead on privacy. A link below its video on YouTube points to a range of privacy-first policies: not selling data to advertisers (bingo), not storing transaction data for Apple Pay, and encrypting communications on iMessage, among others.

Those provisions should prove beneficial for Apple and for the hundreds of millions of people who use its products. Still, the company’s ad, light in tone as its soundtrack may be, strikes a decisively dark note representative of broader national anxiety about Silicon Valley and the danger of its increasingly unavoidable products. Beneath the ad’s veneer of levity, thinly constructed in the form of a small guard dog and man wary of using a urinal too close to his neighbor, the video sends a clear warning to smartphone users entrusting their private information to rival phone makers: The intimate details of your lives may already be compromised. Lean into your worries about your data’s theft and monetization, and fork over 10 Benjamins at the nearest Apple store for the sake of your own security.

Devoid of intelligible dialogue and the oft parodied dramatic voiceover delivering the good word of technological messianism, the ad points to the many ways we maintain privacy in our daily, not necessarily digital lives: posting keep-out signs on our property, halting conversation when a waitress comes by, and shredding files, for instance. It closes with the unambiguous message, “Privacy. That’s iPhone,” and even if Apple recently caught heat for a FaceTime bug that let callers listen in on others’ phones, it’s a strong message. Apple’s pledge to put the issue first is backed up by salient policies that make Facebook’s repeated promises to reorient a business fundamentally dependent on collecting and sharing customer data look phony by comparison.

Nevertheless, the maelstrom of images emphasizing division in the ad—keeping others out in one way or another—spoke to an unmistakable turn in the political and economic culture of the Cradle of Innovation, which will apparently be selling fewer products with its trademark optimism—however stale—and more with what is at best reassurance in the face of anxiety and at worst fear over what the other guys might be doing to you. In one short sequence, a woman with a virulent facial expression slams a door adorned with a “KEEP OUT” sign, the bold red letters accompanied on each side by a skull drawing and smaller text that reads, “GO AWAY!” In the longest sequence, a woman applying makeup in the passenger seat of her car spots a neighboring driver grinning at her, raises her window, and sends a dirty look in his direction.

Now, after Cambridge Analytica, big payouts to sexual predators at Google, and controversy over Amazon’s relationship with local government as well as Microsoft’s military contract, it is understandable that saccharine mission statements like “bringing the world closer together” elicit rolled eyes in the place of what was once wide-eyed optimism. The American public is growing up and growing out of adulatory relationships with companies that have made billions on its data and attention while failing to uphold promises of stewardship and provide clear guidelines on their products’ use. But we will have lost something, as a country that prides itself on innovation and people whose lives have been deeply touched by technology, for better and for worse, if we are sold the next generation of products on the basis of anxiety about the havoc to be wrought by more nefarious alternatives.

If Apple is truly to lead on privacy, it will go a step further than stoking fear about what its peers will do with their market power. It will outline the cause for optimism in a Silicon Valley that turns away from the sins of past generations’ products, trading addiction, monopolization, and reckless data sharing for safe use, competitive innovation, and respect for privacy.

Joe Zappa is the Managing Editor of Street Fight. He has spearheaded the newsroom's editorial operations since 2018. Joe is an ad/martech veteran who has covered the space since 2015. You can contact him at [email protected]