In today’s technologically advanced society, smartphones have evolved into a basic need for facilitating social interactions. There are currently several smartphone manufacturers from which consumers can choose, but when it comes to Apple or its iPhone, people are utterly obsessed. The first Macintosh computer was made available to the general public by Apple in 1984, thanks to Steve Jobs. However, it was not until 2007 that Apple introduced its first iPhone. Since then, its numerous models have entered the market and iPhones have come to represent the pinnacle of human creativity. So the question arises, does Apple actually have some amazing features that set it apart from other brands, or are consumers merely making unconscious decisions by blindly following the herd? In this article, we’ll try to comprehend the sociology behind this insane need for an iPhone. Additionally, by using our social imagination, we will delve further into the world of Apple’s marketing mix.
Understanding iPhone through different Sociological Perspectives:
- Functionalist Perspective:
The functionalist approach, as its name suggests, is one that emphasises the usefulness of anything. When it comes to an iPhone, we might say that functionalists are more interested in treating it as a contributor to society’s efficient functioning by providing people some leisure time to reflect on their lives. For instance, a functionalist would explore the various ways in which an iPhone unites society, whether those ways are through entertainment, knowledge, or socialisation functions facilitated by internet technology.
- Marxist Perspective:
The iPhone would only be another tool for exploitation in the eyes of Marxist academics. Marx’s conception of ‘Surplus Value’ explains why an iPhone could be regarded as an elitist symbol of oppression. For Marx, the rate of exploitation could be measured in terms of ‘Use value,’ ‘Exchange value’ and finally the ‘Total value’ of a commodity. Let’s first clarify what this Use value is. The use value of anything, let’s say Iphone’s use value is nothing but its utility or usage by its consumers. The Exchange value, however, is the iphone’s return value that a capitalist obtains from the buyers of the iPhone.
Before talking about the total value, it’s important to talk about its three components: ‘Constant Capital,’ which refers to the fixed cost of the raw materials used to create the commodity, and ‘Variable Capital,’ which refers to the initial investment made by capitalists in the production of a commodity, such as in the form of worker wages and salaries. The third and most significant factor is ‘Surplus value,’ which is nothing more than an additional value or simply the labor-produced profit that flows directly to the capitalists. Karl Marx identifies the exploitation in a capitalist society using these categories of variable capital and surplus value.
In the light of the example of an iPhone, ‘the ratio of surplus value to variable capital can be viewed as a quantitative depiction of exploitation of workers.’ (Editor, 2019)
Marxists also view the iPhone as a mere commodity that belongs to the Bourgeoisie class.
The reason lies in his Marxist conception of ‘commodity fetishism’ wherein he explains how in a capitalist society, the products of labor, for instance, are turned into commodities, and these commodities are then exchanged on the market.
Marx believed that a commodity remains simple so long as it is connected to its “use value.”  However, once a raw material is transformed into a finished good through the use of labour, people in a capitalist society begin to consider goods as if some value was inherited in the things themselves rather than the human hands that really transformed those raw materials into the goods. In this sense, the labour that created the items gets cut off from them as soon as they are made and given a monetary value. The reason being their fundamental social relationships are viewed with the exchange of commodities, people become estranged from one another because, in the capitalist mode of production, the only way they can relate to one another is through the commodities they produce.
Subsequently, this again results in a distorted view of social reality, in which social relationships are seen as relationships between things, rather than between people.
The reason being the working class puts so much effort into producing the iPhone but receives nothing in compensation compared to the profits of the capitalists, Marxists view the iPhone as a ‘commodity’ through which the working class gets exploited in the hands of the Capitalists.
- Structuralist and Post-Structuralist Perspectives:
Semiotics can be summed up in simple terms as the study of signs and symbols. However, Umberto Eco in his book, ‘The theory of Semiotics’ defines it as ‘a theory of lie or deception’ as it can be misleading at times.
However, Ferdinand de Saussure, a renowned linguist from Switzerland, added that the sign system helps in constructing reality. He even said ‘Language does not reflect reality but rather constructs it.’ It is possible to draw a connection between this linguistic power structure and the iPhone by observing how people who own an iPhone talk about it in quite different ways. As we know language is a component of symbolic capital and thus has a mechanism of power that gets represented in the terminology and expressions used in everyday interaction by people who have iPhones. In this way, language has a hidden power mechanism that is represented in the vocabulary of those who own an iPhone.
Moreover, Saussure also discussed the signifier and signified, which are the central elements of a sign. The semiotic analysis of a sign, however, is done through 3 steps: first, by analyzing verbal signs. Second, by analysing visual signs. Third, by analysing the symbolic message.
This theory of semiotics is oftentimes applied in market research by different companies. Using an iPhone as an example, it can be claimed that Apple has selected a unique symbol or sign to represent its brand, which could be decoded using semiotic analysis. The company’s logo, a half-bitten apple, is a part of the company’s market strategy and this logo seems to talk to its customers directly. According to some stories, the company consciously opted for an apple with a bite taken out of it rather than a whole apple simply so that consumers wouldn’t mistake the “apple” (marking the brand’s name and identity) for a cherry. Additionally, the apple emblem with the bite out represents the “byte” used in computing systems.
(Frith & Cnn, 2011)
Interestingly, Post-structuralism is a theory that suggests that meaning is not inherent in words or text, but is instead created through the reader’s interpretation of the text. This theory can be applied to the marketing mix of the iPhone in a number of ways. For example, the use of symbols and images in the iPhone’s marketing mix can also create different meanings for different people. For some, the use of the Apple logo may suggest that the iPhone is a high-quality product. For others, the use of the Apple logo may suggest that the iPhone is too closely associated with Apple and its other products, making it difficult to use other products with the iPhone. Thinkers such as Ronald Barthes and Jacques Derrida have contributed to this field of research by providing theoretical limitations to Structuralist theory.
- Neo-Marxist Perspective
From a layman’s understanding, Neo-marxism is nothing but an extension and modification of Marxian thoughts. Marx was frequently criticised for being an economic determinist, as we all know. Thus, the term “Neo-marxist” was coined to describe a group of sociologists who believed in the Marxian concept but sought to modify it.
Theodor Adorno’s work on the Culture Industry has been highly influential in the field of critical theory. In his work, Adorno critiques the way that the culture industry mass produces and commodifies culture, in a way that leads to the standardization and homogenization of culture. This has led many to argue that Adorno’s work is relevant to the way that the iPhone is marketed. For example, the iPhone is marketed as a “must-have” product that everyone needs to have, in order to be considered modern and cool. This leads to a situation where people are pressured into buying the iPhone, even if they cannot afford it or do not really need it. In this way, the iPhone’s marketing strategy can be seen as an example of the culture industry at work.
Furthermore, In the critique of enlightenment, Adorno explained how due to capitalist production, society is made inhuman. It belongs to various kinds of people who are into consumerism because a ‘false clarity’ has been created by scientific thought that conspicuous consumption will solve any misery and people won’t need other people to make them feel happy and fulfilled. Therefore, in the coming world, commodities are seemingly becoming the new opium of the masses.
In addition, in this iPhone culture, consumers have surrendered to mass production. The iPhone culture is a mass deception in the sense that it perpetuates the false belief that individuals can be self-sufficient and autonomous. This is in contrast to the Enlightenment ideal which holds that individuals are capable of reason and can be autonomous. The iPhone culture relies on the false belief that individuals can be self-sufficient and autonomous in order to sell more products.
Likewise, in his theory of cultural capital, Pierre Bourdieu argues that people who have more cultural capital are more likely to succeed in life than those who have less. The iPhone is a perfect example of this because people who have an iPhone are presented as if they are more likely to be successful than those who don’t. This is because the iPhone is a symbol of wealth and status.
Also, the iPhones have their own class which identifies themselves as having something in common between them who occupy certain spaces, positions and interactions.
This also explains how the iPhone has become a symbolic capital therefore prestige, honor and linked to cultural capital.
- Postmodernist Perspective
Moreover, famous thinker Jean Baudrillard in his works ‘The System of Objects’ and ‘For a critique of the political economy of the sign’ blends semiotic with structuralist study of a culture from a Neo-Marxist lens.
In addition, he also introduced the important idea of ‘Sign value’ as an addition to Marx’s concept of ‘Use Value.’ In this way, a brand can be seen as a sign with some significance. A status symbol in and of itself, an iPhone, for instance, represents the social standing and socioeconomic class of its users.
At the moment, a commodity’s ‘sign value’ determines its worth. Marketers establish brands or signs with certain goals in mind. A sign already has a message, which its intended audience decodes. It’s possible to argue that signs and symbols already convey a lot about a brand. To comprehend Apple’s market research technique, one must investigate the semiotic significance of its logo’s size and shape. Instead of emphasising the use value of their items, Market researchers nowadays place more emphasis on the sign value.
Additionally, Baudrillard says that companies assign meanings to their products because only signs, not the actual products, are sold in the market. According to him, the market is currently experiencing hyper-reality, a third tier of ‘Simulacra,’ that gives rise to the heightened reality when images and reality collide. This once more demonstrates how, with the advent of modernity, our commodity relationships have taken the role of and are governing our social relationships.
To recapitulate the whole argument, it could be said that each and every sociological perspective has a unique way of looking at things. For instance, functionalists try to focus only on the positives of the iPhone. After all, Apple’s products are known for their innovative design, functionality, and user-friendliness. Conversely, For Marx, iPhone is a symbol of the oppression of the poor by the Capitalists. And the way I see it, I would say that I somehow agree with Marx to the great extent, for we see in the earlier times, only postal services were available and prevalent but as time passed by, and technology took over the world, the gap between have and have nots, in Marxist terms, started widening. Currently, only the wealthy could afford such pricey brands as Apple, in contrast to postal services, which were accessible to all.
In the Indian context, we can observe people purchasing iPhones by even offering to sell their kidneys and lands, which demonstrates how an iPhone is more of a status symbol than a brand. Even though India’s ranking on the 2022 Global Hunger Index dropped to 107th, the majority of Indians’ pattern of prioritising their iPhone over everything else is unlikely to change very soon.
Interestingly, we witness this trend globally; people continue to adopt a herd mentality and appear to make an unconscious and unnecessary decision despite the fact that purchasing an iPhone is prohibitively expensive, at least in developing countries. In addition to being a status symbol, in terms of pricing also, Apple has a premium pricing strategy, which allows it to capture a larger share of the high-end market segment. The company does not engage in discounting or other promotional activities, which helps to maintain its premium image. This clearly shows Apple manufactures its iPhones only for the Elite class and people from other classes couldn’t really afford this highly pricey product. Subsequently, Neo-Marxists treat it as a highly commodified and mass-produced product, whose marketing strategy relies heavily on standardization and homogenization.
Additionally, contemporary market research is crucial to the study of semiotics. Apple’s promotional mix includes traditional and digital marketing channels. The company heavily invests in advertising and promotion to create awareness for its products. The entire branding culture of which has given rise to a superfluous component that Baudrillard refers to as the ‘hyper reality.’ People can now perceive things that aren’t even physically there because of this. For instance, Apple currently makes all of its prospective future iPhone designs available in advance, and because it is the concept/idea that is ultimately sold in the market, its products are in high demand even before they are released. This “Simulacra” refers to a false reality—in other words, it’s “a new way of experiencing reality,” to use one of Apple’s taglines. Given how easily people may be tricked by current high tech, like AI, makes it clear how terrifying technology could be and how wickedly it is being used to attract consumers.
- Raka, K., & Shanker,S. (2018). Sociology: A textbook. 10. Functional Perspective. p. 121 to 123. Jawahar Publishers & Distributors. 
- Editor. (2019, September 30). A Marxist Analysis of the iPhone. Retrieved October 18, 2022, from http://www.socialisteconomist.com/2019/09/a-marxist-analysis.html 
- Introduction to Karl Marx, Module on Fetishism. (n.d.). Retrieved October 23, 2022, from https://cla.purdue.edu/academic/english/theory/marxism/modules/marxfetishism.html 
- Yakin, H. , & Totu, A. (2014). The Semiotic Perspectives of Peirce and Saussure: A Brief Comparative Study. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 155 . doi: 10.1016/j.sbspro.2014.10.247 
- Adorno, T. W., & Bernstein, J. M. (2001). The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture (Routledge Classics) (2nd ed.). Routledge. 
- Sociology Group. (2020, July 22). What is Bourdieu theory of cultural capital ? Sociology Group: Sociology and Other Social Sciences Blog. https://www.sociologygroup.com/bourdieu-theory-cultural-capital/ 
- Habib, M. M. (2018, August 30). Culture and Consumerism in Jean Baudrillard: A Postmodern Perspective. Asian Social Science, 14(9), 43. https://doi.org/10.5539/ass.v14n9p43 
- Vos, L. (2022, August 29). Semiotics in Marketing: What It Means for Your Brand and Messaging. CXL. Retrieved October 19, 2022, from https://cxl.com/blog/semiotics-marketing/ 
- Frith, H., & Cnn, S. T. (2011, October 7). Unravelling the tale behind the Apple logo. CNN. Retrieved October 20, 2022, from https://edition.cnn.com/2011/10/06/opinion/apple-logo/index.html