Apple’s U2 Blunder Is A Gift That Keeps Giving

Generosity is one of the most important traits in a friend, and now that we consider brands amongst our closest allies, that generosity extends to the brands with which we closely align ourselves.

It is nice to get an email with a discount for our summer wardrobe, and we love it when a friend casually drops by with a gift, ‘just because’, but how do we feel when a multimillion pound tech organisation collaborates with one of the biggest bands on the planet to ‘give’ us a gift that we never asked for, installed on to our brand new device?

In 2014 when Apple ‘gifted’ all iPhone users a free U2 album, we were forced to reckon with the fact that an unsolicited ‘gift’ isn’t always nice. 

The truth is that new phones often come with apps, the functional sort that we might never use but are still appreciated by most. The latest of these functional apps is the spirit level and tape measure from Apple, with which many users have been having a lot of fun since the 2018 release.

To the contrary, the mistake Apple made in ‘gifting’ users U2’s Songs Of Innocence album was that people were suspicious of the motive and not everyone liked U2, so it didn’t feel like a very personal gift. Had Apple given users the choice of a free album, it might have felt more exciting, but to the average hip hop enthusiast, the automatic download of Bono and the gang’s latest album felt at best annoying and at worst… a bit creepy? After all, users were not asked whether they wanted said gift.

Apple was right to give its customers a freebie, who doesn’t love receiving something for nothing? However, said freebie should have come as a prompt asking users whether they want the download or not. The crucial lesson is that you can’t just force freebies on to people, because it feels less like a gift and more like a strange invasion of space. Since (and actually, before) Apple felt obliged to give the gift of U2, many digital platforms have followed suit. However, they have done so in a way which doesn’t infringe privacy and gives users a choice to take a free offer.

For instance, Spotify often offers their free users 30 minutes of ad-free listening if they listen to one advert, but at no point are users forced to take the offer. It’s opt-in rather than opt-out. What’s more, online bookmakers frequently use freebies to engage new customers, with betting hub Oddschecker providing comparative tables and reviews for such offers.

Still, all these examples are of offers consumers can choose to take or leave, which is very unlike what happened with the U2 download.

In fact, it wasn’t the first time these two superpowers had come together. In 2004, they had banded together to bring the world a U2 branded iPod, which was shiny red, and whose proceeds raised went to fighting AIDS – very on-brand for all involved.

It didn’t come pre-installed with any music, but it was a subtle nod to the future power of artist/tech alliances. A little like Tidal and Beyonce… or perhaps not

By 2014, U2 had released a recent album which was arguably a commercial failure and were planning to go on tour. Apple’s iTunes platform was struggling with dwindling sales due to the growing popularity of streaming companies such as Spotify.

U2 tend to make money from live performances, with their previous tour grossing over $700 million, so they had little to lose by giving away their album to drum up an audience for their upcoming jaunt around the world. However, Apple seriously misread the situation. Giving music away for free might be exciting when you’re offering a platform to new, previously unheard music, but giving away an album produced by a band whose manager had previously criticised the trend of ‘free’ music seems like a serious misjudgement on both Apple and U2’s part. 

iPhone owners were not happy, with many lashing out at U2 and Bono. Many people said that it was an infringement of privacy that the company were able to just send whatever they wanted to a consumer’s phone without warning. At the same time, software-as-service techniques used by everyone from Apple to Microsoft are already doing this, to some extent. The album came as part of a regular software update and for users to uninstall, Apple had to actually publish a tool to aid the removal of the album.

Although many complained about being forcibly gifted Songs of Innocence, the album received positive praise in many reviews, most notably from Rolling Stone, who awarded the album five stars. Ultimately the album thrust the band into the limelight once more, and the band also won a Tour of the Year nomination in 2018 for the spectacular tour that followed the album. 

Apple learned a lesson here: everybody loves a freebie, but only on their own terms. You can’t force someone to accept something just because you want to give it to them. Generosity is best served on the terms of the person being gifted.