Maybe you have a smartphone, and maybe you’ve downloaded an app or two (or 40), and some you’ve paid for, and some were free, and some were supported by ads. And some were ads and you didn’t even realize it.
Well, the truth is, most of those free apps are just ads themselves. What was the most talked about app when Apple’s app store opened back in '08? iBeer. Why? Not just because people had thirsty boots, but because in those dim and dark days, it was a real show-off app, the kind that did something kind of amazing, made people see sunspots, as the 4,015,943 views of the app on YouTube shows: demonstrated very clearly how stunning the accelerometer in the iPhone, the part of the device that knows how the phone is being tilted and turned, could be, in presenting a virtual beer and sloshed around and drained as you twisted the phone3. It was so popular and, yes, viral that Carling more or less copied it as iPint and got sued for it2.
iBeer costs 99¢ in the app store; iPint was free (it’s not there anymore, and you can't really say no one is to blame). The first made money directly: in the young and heady days of mobile app development, a good idea for a whimsical buck could work really well (it still can, of course, there's just much more competition). The second was an ad, in more ways than one.
There's an emerging truth in advertising: If you are not paying for it, you're not the customer; you're the product being sold. iPint, the *free* version from Carling, was an ad for Carling's beers, sure, but as much as it was intended as an ad for Carling, it became the best kind of ad for the iPhone itself, and got people to use it to sell the iPhone to their friends as much as the beer itself, if not moreso, which is the dilemma of really great ads: hard as I tried, I couldn't even remember the brewery that "sponsored" iPint. What sticks in the mind is showing off an iPhone to people using the app. So, did it actually work as an ad for Carling, or was Carling effectively giving Apple your eyeballs?
As almost no one is likely to remember iPint now, while iBeer is on version 4 (and has spawned an iPad kegger for you snowbirds out there, all for just $2.99), now with in-app purchases to boot. iPint and iBeer may indeed be similar to the classic Subservient Chicken ad from a few years back: if you remember the ad, you may not remember what it was selling. It too was a “viral” ad that pushed the boundaries of what people thought was technologically possible, and used that to grab eyeballs, rather than any intrinsic message about the product (in this case, yes, a chicken sandwich). Innovative mobile apps that serve as ads may run the same risk: their innovation ends up selling a platform more than the intended product.
- intomobile.com/2010/09/10/study-iphone-users-download-average-of-40-apps-android-25-blackberry-14/ ↩
- telegraph.co.uk/technology/3358832/iPhone-application-developer-sues-Carling-over-virtual-beer.html ↩
- Steve Jobs calls this “magic” and he may call it “revolutionary” and maybe it is, but it’s also one heck of a sales pitch that iPhone owners do for Apple. ↩