I have very little in common with Kendall Roy. He almost controlled one of the biggest media conglomerates in the world. He has a chauffeur for his motorcycle. He travels in private planes. He almost bought a company similar to The New York Times—while I hesitate to buy an NYT subscription. His father left him billions of dollars. Mine did not. (This is fine: My father loved me deeply and demonstrably. His did not.) We have, as mentioned, far too little in common. Except for the fact that we use the exact same phone.
Kendall Roy, and his siblings and his monstrous father on the show Succession (streaming in India on JioCinema), use a brand new iPhone. Of course they do.
This is truly unique brand positioning. State-of-the-art gadgets have always helped shows and films to depict affluence but this was rarely ubiquitous. James Bond used an Ericsson phone with a touchpad to drive his BMW in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), while Al Pacino lusted after an unreleased gold Samsung smartphone in Ocean’s Thirteen (2007).Now the only shiny rectangle that matters is the iPhone. It has become at once the Mercedes—the standard luxury brand—as well as the Rolls- Royce, the best there is. Blame it on the meticulously rounded edges.
This positioning is newer than it seems. Three years ago, Knives Out director Rian Johnson revealed how circumspect Apple was about its on-screen depiction. “They let you use iPhones in movies, but, and this is very pivotal if you’re ever watching a mystery movie, bad guys cannot have iPhones on camera.” This bears true to Johnson’s whodunit, where the villain doesn’t use an iPhone even as several other suspects do. Simply by breaking this product-placement omerta, Johnson finished it off. Storytellers using Apple products realised how big a giveaway this was, as did Apple. Morality soon became no obstacle in iPhone-ownership. Even Logan Roy got one.
Part of this, as mentioned, is due to the rounded edges. Apple builds products with near-ridiculous attention to detail, fetishising materials and their sculpting in a way other phones do not—even those that are as expensive, if not more—preferring to concentrate instead on battery life or better cameras. Yet by putting a discernible premium on elegance—and by talking about it loudly enough—Apple has singled itself out as the super-luxury brand without being the world’s most expensive or most powerful phone.
When we see Apple products used on films and shows, the discernible difference is not in product but in approach: The Succession crowd uses the same phones we do but they never feel the need to protect their gadget with a case. Dent it twice, get a new one. It’s not an approach those of us saving up for a phone could possibly take, and that’s what sets us apart—the fact that they are raw-dogging it, possibly aided by the fact that their trouser pockets aren’t likely to contain loose change and house keys.
Another reason for this proliferation is that Apple, by sticking resolutely to its own way of doing things, has a recognisable visual interface, easy for storytellers to overlay on screen in terms of speech bubbles used for texting and FaceTime video calls. Even their message tones and swoosh sounds have now become everyday on-screen communication, just the way the Nokia ringtone—the Grande Valse, by Spanish composer Francisco Tarrega—used to show up in horror movies all the time. We don’t need to be told what it is because we already know.
In terms of product positioning, this is a feat. Obviously, everyone on Apple TV+ shows uses iPhones to text, while FaceTime-ing is written into the plots, but Apple’s infiltration into the cool market has always been strong, right from Sex And The City icon Carrie Bradshaw writing all her columns—and thereby the show’s voice-over—on a Macbook, down to one Modern Family episode ('Connection Lost', season 6, episode 16, Hotstar) that was shot almost entirely on iPhones and iPads. That also demonstrates the brand’s growing demographic. As in a newly gentrified neighbourhood, first came the creatives, then came everyone else.
In brand terms, the closest I can get is Nike’s Air Jordan shoes. Ubiquitous yet cool, expensive yet attainable, on screen and on wishlists at the same time. And yep, performers and rock stars and athletes rock their pairs with far greater abandon than those of us who take time saving up for them. There is, however, one massive thing that Jordans—produced in limited runs, with prices varying astronomically due to availability—have that iPhones do not. Exclusivity.
Enviable as this current position may be for the brand, it could be headed for a tipping point. You might not want what everyone on screen already has, and Apple—far behind its rivals on customisation options in product preferences or upgrades—is serving up more of the same. No matter how exceedingly gorgeous Apple makes its products, they are never going to be hard to get. Once the cult, they are now the baseline.
Not that this matters to the streaming platforms. Amazon Prime Video and Peacock are already fidgeting with “virtual product placement” or “In-Scene Ads” where a can of cola or a bag of candy can be added digitally next to an on-screen character. This can be different for different markets, and even for different demographics. It sounds frightening but we are so used to logos everywhere that I doubt we will notice. Speaking of logos, look at the one on the back of Kendall’s phone. Who bit the apple? We all did.
The Fake Sheikh (Amazon Prime Video) is a documentary about British reporter Mazher Mahmood, who took on a number of false identities to entrap politicians, celebrities and sports stars on camera for various headline-grabbing exposés. Fascinating, unseemly stuff.
Raja Sen is a screenwriter and critic. He has co-written Chup, a film about killing critics, and is now creating an absurd comedy series.He posts @rajasen.