What Do the iPhone and Jonathan Franzen Have in Common?
Or, put another way:
What does WalMart have in common with Oprah Winfrey?
The writer Jonathan Franzen is best known for his 2001 novel The Corrections. He carries a very strong reputation among the high-end literary set, and is as opinionated about said set (in the affirmative) as he is scornful of low-end culture.
This same bifurcation can be seen in the reaction to his work. On Amazon.com, The Corrections has garnered 1,013 customer reviews, a very large number, with an average rating of three stars. That’s right down the middle between the lowest possible rating (one) and the highest (five). Consider the headlines of two consecutive recent entries: a five-star review titled “A Modern Classic” and a one-star review titled “A seemingly unending stream of word vomit.”
Soon after The Corrections was published, Oprah Winfrey chose it as her Book Club selection. Franzen did what I believe no author has ever done: turned her down. He seemed to believe that Oprah’s imprimatur was declasse, that it would harm his literary reputation. This decision was made easier by the fact that the book was already selling very, very well.
I thought of this dust-up when I read that Apple has plans to sell its iPhone in WalMart. For $99. This makes WalMart only the second mass-market retailer (after Best Buy) to sell the iPhone.
It is hard to think of a modern product with an image that runs more counter to a modern retailer’s image than the iPhone to WalMart. I am sure that Apple gave a lot of consideration to the risk of taking its high-end product into the most mainstream store that’s ever existed. What kind of psychic damage might this do to the existing high-end users? If the iPhone sells well in WalMart, does the cool sheen that has been built up over countless media impressions start to seem a bit duller? And even if so, what sort of strategic move — what sort of higher-end iPhone, that is — might Apple be preparing in order to let its high-end faithful maintain their cool-sheen advantage?
For what it’s worth, Oprah Winfrey has had a much better past few years than Jonathan Franzen, at least commercially speaking. But that was plainly not the level that Franzen cared about. Apple, meanwhile, needs to care. It’s a publicly traded company.
It’s also interesting to note that WalMart won’t start selling the iPhone until perhaps the day before Christmas. This might seem like a gigantic lost opportunity — or perhaps a way to not overemphasize the new relationship when the lights are the brightest.
On the other hand, with way too many people giving way too many gift cards for Christmas, the WalMart iPhone is perfectly positioned to capture the after-Christmas shopping binge.