Apple Fans More Likely to Turn a Blind Eye Than Boycott
There have been calls from many quarters to boycott Apple over labor conditions at the plants in China that turn out its products, but there's not much indication that consumers are hearing them. "Apple's products are symbols of status and hipness, and that sort of lifestyle approach trumps any sort of overriding concern about where and how the stuff is made," said journalism professor Rich Hanley.
01/31/12 11:58 AM PT
A sobering account of conditions at Apple's contract factories in China recently appeared in The New York Times. Essentially, the manufacture of those sleek and sexy devices that consumers love so much has been accompanied by 23 deaths and 273 injuries. In a horrific account of one of the deaths, the Times told of Lai Xiadong, who was severely burned in an explosion and died of his injuries two days later.
Reacting to the article, Apple executives expressed care and concern about workers in its supply chain. Consumers (some) expressed horror that their cherished devices were the product of such misery. Labor activists took advantage of the issue to spotlight global working conditions in emerging nations. Naturally, talk of a boycott also emerged, fueled by editorials and opinion columns in leading publications.
Should Apple Be Nervous?
The question is, will a boycott catch on? Does Apple have anything to seriously worry about?
On one hand, it does. The company is sitting on a wealth of cash -- US$97.6 billion, or enough to make Greece's debt payments over the next two years. Surely, it would seem, Apple can afford to treat its workers a little better.
On the other hand, as Apple devotees are quick to say, why should the company be singled out? Most -- if not all -- of the major mobile device makers rely on Foxconn and other China-based companies for their manufacturing.
Perhaps one reason the spotlight is on Apple is the way it has positioned itself, suggested Paul Levinson, professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University -- that is, as a company that is "out to make money, sure, but in a way that enhances human beings, doesn't take advantage of or degrade people."
In this sense, Apple has been a leading "post capitalist" company, he told MacNewsWorld. "That's why the equivalent of a sweat shop in China should be unacceptable to Apple."
Apple could conceivably do something about it, Levinson continued -- especially if a boycott did take off.
"The one factor that might prevent change is the unpredictable position of the Chinese government, which has shown that it doesn't like to take marching orders from American corporations," he added.
No Boycott, No Way
Still, it's questionable that many consumers would be motivated to participate.
"Consumers don't care," said Rob Frankel, branding expert and author of The Revenge of Brand X.
"They didn't stop buying Martha Stewart or Kathy Gifford merchandise," he told MacNewsWorld, referring to other brands tarnished by similar allegations, "and they love Apple more."
The Nike Model
Apple probably can get away with Nike's strategy of 10 years ago, when it was caught up in the same global PR maelstrom, said Rich Hanley, associate professor and director of the graduate journalism program at Quinnipiac University.
"Nike's strategy to monitor the factories and to open certain plants to outside observers tended to quell the uproar, and Apple will have to do the same thing," he told MacNewsWorld. "The fact remains that most consumers could care less about where their products are made. Apple's products are symbols of status and hipness, and that sort of lifestyle approach trumps any sort of overriding concern about where and how the stuff is made."
The good news for Apple is that the Nike brand emerged intact, if not stronger, for the efforts it put forward, Hanley said. "Nike remained a strong brand despite reports that workers, including children, were subjected to ruthless production schedules in inhospitable conditions."
Apple did not respond to our request to comment for this story.