Why Apple short-circuited the media machine for iPhone X reviews

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Apple's new strategy for iPhone X reviews blew up the system.
Apple's new strategy for iPhone X reviews blew up the system.
Photo: Gerd Altmann/Pixabay CC

Anybody who thinks Apple can’t innovate should look in awe at the fecal hurricane whipped up by the company’s unorthodox iPhone X marketing plan.

By giving popular YouTubers early access to the next-gen iPhone, and allowing them to “scoop” the old-school journalists traditionally granted such preferential treatment, Cupertino upended the typical review cycle.

Apple apparently bruised a few fragile egos in the process. Frankly, it’s hilarious watching the ensuing media meltdown.

Typically, Apple hands out review units to big-name publications and tech bloggers, setting a review embargo date and time. At the appointed hour, everyone launches their reviews simultaneously in a fusillade of finely tuned criticism, like so many archers in a Game of Thrones battle.

Everybody plays by the rules. Everybody stays happy.

Apple breaks the rules with iPhone X reviews

This time, however, Apple had the temerity to show off the iPhone X to a handful of video bloggers — and apparently gave them permission to upload their first impressions Monday, prior to the lifting of the review embargo on Tuesday.

Some old-school journos — including Backchannel’s Steven Levy, one of the precious few to get his hands on the original iPhone back in 2007 — also got a pass around the traditional review embargo.

The immediate result? The YouTubers’ mostly uncritical hands-on impressions got the jump on journalists at The New York Times and other publications. And they racked up hundreds of thousands of views in the process.

Meanwhile, outlets including The Verge, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today and The Washington Post got just a day to quickly crank out crash reviews (or not) before the embargo lifted. Other publications such as TechCrunch, BuzzFeed, Mashable and iMore got the phone for a week.

The vloggers also beat perennial Apple watchers like Daring Fireball to the punch.

The delayed result? Daring Fireball’s John Gruber got sarcastic about it, dissing High Snobeity’s iPhone X video. “Thank god Apple seeded these insightful critics with a review unit,” Gruber wrote.

Then he took aim at Fashion magazine’s video. And then at Axios’ Animoji-centered impressions.

“Thank god Apple seeded Mike Allen with an iPhone X review unit,” Gruber wrote. “Such great insight from his fucking nephew, the emoji expert.”

Next thing you know, Gruber himself was getting trolled for posting a photo of the iPhone X.

“Thank god Apple seeded this talented product photographer with a review unit,” tweeted Scary Equality.

Lighting a media firestorm

The repercussions of Apple’s new rules for iPhone X reviews spread from there.

Recode wondered about Apple’s moves, calling this “a curious new launch strategy.”

“These videos, published by channels including Booredatwork.com, UrAvgConsumer, Soldier Knows Best, and sneaker/streetwear blog HighSnobiety, are a little braggy, mostly positive (“man, it’s pretty good!”) and don’t feel like gadget reviews at all,” Recode wrote. “For many of us, they won’t replace the utility of more sophisticated reviews, which are supposed to tell us whether the iPhone X is worth our $1,000. They’re not great videos, frankly.”

Then YouTuber Juan Carlos Bagnell took issue with Recode’s tone and called out “institutionalized racism.” (You can watch Bagnell’s nearly 10-minute rant below.)

Apple PR: A sneaky new strategy

The most cynical explanation for Apple’s iPhone X review strategy would be to liken it to a Hollywood studio hoping to blunt criticism of a turkey about to land in theaters. Movie studios demand that reviewers hold their poison pens until the release date of certain cinematic turds. Or they simply decline to screen movies for critics in advance, hoping to salvage an opening weekend rather than face bad box office receipts due to withering reviews.

I don’t think that’s what’s going on here, though. I think Apple is just showing how savvy it is when it comes to managing media in the 21st century — by borrowing another Hollywood trick.

These days, movie studios love to give excitable fans sneak peeks at certain genre films, encouraging them to tweet early and often, and otherwise spread the love via social networks. It’s a proven method for generating precious word-of-mouth buzz.

Apple aped this routine by giving YouTube stars, who are undoubtedly less jaundiced than tech journalists, an early look at the iPhone X. Once again, Cupertino is all about disruption.

Apple is more than tech — it’s a lifestyle

Apple tilted in this direction with the unveiling of the Apple Watch. The company invited tons of fashion bloggers to the event, making it a little less tech and a little more lifestyle.

With the iPhone X reviews, Apple doubled down on this approach. The goal certainly is to grab the attention of consumers who don’t necessarily read geeky blogs like TechCrunch and Daring Fireball (or Cult of Mac, for that matter).

Now, some of those jaundiced journalists now plan to withhold their own iPhone X reviews. They call the 24-hour window between getting their demo units and the lifting of Apple’s review embargo inadequate.

“Yes, I have the iPhone X, but I’m spending more time with it before publishing a review. Stay tuned,” wrote The New York Times’ Brian X. Chen.

Time will tell if disgruntled reviewers who take a few extra days to form their opinions (and hone their words) will unleash passive-aggressive hell on Apple for leaving them out of the loop, at least momentarily.

Given the strong reviews so far, even the ones rushed out by traditional reviewers, that seems unlikely. (Certainly my former Wired colleague Chen will play it straight.)

More Apple innovation

Ultimately, Apple’s iPhone X reviews strategy looks brilliant — a cunning subversion of the tech media machine. It’s also the latest proof that Apple is a nerdy tech company stuffed inside a massive corporation wrapped inside an invincible fashion and lifestyle brand. It’s a multi-billion-dollar Turducken.

Right now, the iPhone X’s $1,000 price tag and limited supply mean not everyone can have the “smartphone of the future.” That means it can’t be a truly ubiquitous device. Not yet, anyway.

But with its marketing scheme, Apple is venturing far beyond the fanboy with iPhone X. It’s wooing a new generation of users, who don’t care about traditional news cycles or even traditional tech news publications.

And if the social media strategy doesn’t hook them, the animated poo Animoji will.