Why Apple should care about silly superstitions

Apple Month is nearly upon us! September has seen new iPhones unveiled for the past decade, with one small blip last year when a global pandemic did the unthinkable and pushed the Apple juggernaut off the road… for all of a month. The iPhone 12 was unveiled in October, instead.

Fans of the numerical sequences will note that that means that the next Apple handset due is, therefore, the iPhone 13. If they’re also superstitious, they will also be aware that the number 13 has long been associated with bad luck. It’s not clear what this dates back to, but it’s taken seriously enough that skyrise buildings often skip the 13th floor altogether.

But this is Apple, and Apple doesn’t flinch in the face of an unlucky number or the superstitious humans that fear it. A company that is capable of convincing a sentient global population that earphones should look like electric toothbrush heads is clearly capable of bending humans to its will, after all, so people will just buy the phone anyway, right? A few five-star reviews, a smattering of pretentious commercials and some endorsements from influencers, and people’s fear of bad luck will just evaporate, surely?

Well, maybe. But there is some evidence to suggest it won’t quite be as plain sailing as that. Back in July, the company SellCell commissioned a survey of over 3,000 buyers of iPhones and iPads to see what they thought of the name. While the majority couldn’t care less and were probably slightly confused as to why they were being asked, around a fifth said they’d be put off buying Apple’s next phone if it had the number 13 in it. 

The same people doubtless didn’t have an issue downloading that notoriously unlucky iOS 13 software, or booting up their cursed 13in MacBook Pros of course, but that’s not really the point. When you’re dealing with superstition, logic naturally has to take a holiday. 

Photo by Paolo Conversano on Unsplash
A cursed 13in MacBook Pro. Terrifying.

I have to say that, based on absolutely nothing but my gut feeling, one-in-five possible buyers being put off thanks to the name feels a bit high. But when you’re shipping the number of iPhones that Apple intends to, then even small percentages equal millions of units and billions of dollars’ worth of lost sales.   

The iPhone 12 sold over 100 million units by April, so let’s be conservative and assume it’s up to 130 million units now. Let’s also assume that the iPhone 13 follows a similar sales trajectory, and that a good proportion of the superstitious types will offset the bad luck with a lucky rabbit’s foot and buy one anyway. If even 1% of that number decides to sit this generation out on superstitious grounds, that’s 1.3 million lost sales – or just over a billion dollars worth of unsold iPhones, assuming similar pricing to the iPhone 12 (and assuming my maths is also correct).

Now granted the words “assume” and “assuming” made up over 4% of that last paragraph, proving that if nothing else I’m in desperate need of a thesaurus, but the interesting thing is that this is a completely unnecessary position for Apple to put itself into. 

It could kick the can down the road for another year by calling this upcoming handset the iPhone 12S (in line with the iPhones 4S, 5S, 6S and XS). Yes, that would only delay the number 13 for another year (unless Apple decided to release an iPhone 12SS), but even then there would be no pressure to release an iPhone 13 if it didn’t want to. There was no iPhone 9, after all, and nobody kicked off*. It would even be a very Apple move to call the new handset simply “iPhone”, causing a million tech websites to panic as their SEO strategy goes up in smoke. 

Yes, it wouldn’t be a great look for a two-trillion-dollar company to be running away from a scary number, but it’s not like the company would have to admit its reasoning. And, incidentally, it wouldn’t be the first smartphone manufacturer to do so either: there’s no OnePlus 4 because the number four is considered equally unlucky in China, where it’s associated with death.

Photo by Denis Cherkashin on Unsplash
Would OnePlus still be around to release this phone if the company had made a OnePlus 4? WHO KNOWS?

That said, the iPhone 4 and 4S launched in China, and, as far as I can tell, nobody died – though it’s possible someone pulled their shoulder from throwing eggs with too much venom. Despite this, the unluckily numbered phones sold strongly there, and Apple continues to do well in China to this day.

All the same, Apple feels a bit like the horror movie character who dismisses an ancient curse and meets a sticky end for his arrogance. While a few missing billion dollars would hardly be fatal for Apple, ignoring the fears of some of its potential buyers does seem a bit pigheaded, no matter how silly those beliefs are. 

Ultimately it doesn’t matter if any Apple executives believe the number 13 is unlucky or not – if enough of their customers are suitably spooked not to buy, then it will feel like a cursed product soon enough.  

*Okay, somebody, somewhere, was probably really cross about this. But it’s probably best not to mull on this fact for too long.

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