The real story behind the huge crowds gathered at iPhone launches

iPhone X launch

Apple’s special edition iPhone X release – like the new iPhones before it – brings thousands of people lining up in front of Apple stores around the globe. It raises the seemingly obvious question: what sane person would queue overnight for an over-priced, at best incrementally-changed gadget?

But what sounds like a question for psychologists, may actually be better addressed as a matter of the way media and markets work.

You’d be forgiven for expecting this article to be a rant about the blatant consumerism of the people that stand in line – many overnight – to get the latest iPhone. Or against the world’s obsession with smartphones more generally. After ten years of extensive media coverage of each launch, we’ve all grown used to the clichéd pictures of “die-hard fans” queuing outside Apple stores.

Many regularly express their profound dislike of the practice. One commentator called the iPhone 6 queues a “giant cocktail of wrongness and irrationality”. Samsung even ran a series of commercials to mock the infamous queues.

At the same time, marketing experts celebrate Apple for its seemingly magical ability to electrify the masses and mobilise thousands of people to line up for days. It has become a custom among admirers and critics alike to compare the relationship between Apple and its loyal customers with religions and mystical cults. What we are told is a story of powerful symbols and an idolised brand on one side, meeting irrational lemmings on the other.

Yet, there is also evidence suggesting that iPhone queues may be the result of something much more banal than the “mythical power of symbols, icons and stories”. And what if iPhone queuers weren’t irrational hedonists, but were acting more like calculating entrepreneurs?

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