Sarah Britten
Sarah Britten

President Obama, the Apple of politics

President Obama has a lot in common with Apple. Both started off as challengers to mainstream hegemony. Both appealed to individuals who fancied themselves as iconoclasts, rather than corporate overlords. Both inspired idealism and both ensure adherents the kind of tribal affiliation most of us crave in same form. Both, too, have seriously flawed records.

And both get forgiven because they’re far cooler than their rivals. Because, in short, they are great brands.

I was reminded of that reading through this piece on US government threats to press freedom.

When the president of the American Civil Liberties Union declares that what the US government has been up to is “a further example of how President Obama will surely pass President Richard Nixon as the worst president ever on issues of national security and press freedom” you know something is up.

And that threw me, because I was a fan of President Obama, until quite recently. He exemplified, to me — a South African who came of age in the dewy-eyed and ultimately flawed idealism of the Rainbow Nation — the best of the human spirit. A man beyond race, a politician beyond politics. Yes we can, he said, and I believed.

I was thrilled when he won his first term in office, relieved when he defeated the Republicans in 2012 — vile, misogynist lot that they have become. I’m not alone. South African Twitter, like much of the world, was overwhelmingly pro-Democrat. We believed in him because we were convinced that he mirrored the qualities we most desired for ourselves.

Now he is coming to visit us, to receive the freedom of Cape Town bestowed by the same political party that fought noisily against our own restrictions on press freedom. I am reminded that I feel … disappointed. Not betrayed perhaps, because that’s too strong a word. But conned, nonetheless.

The forthcoming visit is already marred by controversy. Drone strikes have been a contentious issue for a long time, and the source of the anti-Obama sentiment among South African Muslims.

Now the ANC has called on the Obamas to reject the award, not because of drones, but on the grounds that Cape Town has failed to deliver services to the poor, and the DA is using this as a diversionary tactic. The ANC, of course, owns the rights to opportunistic diversions and are quite rightly going after the official opposition for breach of copyright.

Hypocrisy, as Evita Bezuidenhout noted back in the 1980s, is the Vaseline of political intercourse.

As it happens, I am typing this post on an Apple product. I have only used Macs for the past decade. I am a brand loyalist, not with the fervour of a new convert, but the placid resignation of a spouse long settled into marriage. We know each other’s quirks, and I have no desire to learn my way around something else.

In my love of Apple, I am also a hypocrite. I forgive the poor record on sustainability. I overlook the suicides by employees of the factory that makes the devices I love. I happily buy into the restrictions imposed on me by iTunes. And hey, if, like many other multinationals, Apple employs the services of experts to avoid taxes, why not?

Another brand with that kind of record would be the subject of protests and boycotts, but not Apple. The hipsters holding up posters are the ones who post Instagram shots of protest marches from their iPads.

That’s the power of a great brand: not so much to persuade you to buy it in the first place, but to ensure that it has your forgiveness when it lets you down. Branding, in this sense, is about persuading us to adopt and maintain double standards. That’s why it makes sense for marketers to invest so much in it.

There is a difference, of course. I spend money on Apple products, but I’m not a US citizen — so whether I support a US president is neither here nor there. Still, I can express my affiliation. I can signal my disappointment. When President Obama gets the freedom of Cape Town, I will not tweeting supportively from my iPhone.

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