Apple, Toyota, and the Great Media Piling-on

Remember back when people thought their Toyotas were trying to kill them? And then the company issued huge recalls after a bunch of people peeled into traffic, blaming stuck accelerators, floor-mats, and computers? And then, quietly, the National Highway Traffic Safety Association basically said the crashes were caused by “pedal misapplication” i.e. some doofus holding down the accelerator when he meant to hold down the brake? Good times.

Toyota’s recall frenzy really took off in the winter of 2009 as floor mats galore were sent back for a good scrubbing. Like the Grinch taking the tree and all the presents to fix one little light bulb, Toyota seemed at once haughty and suspicious until they finally threw in the towel in January and offered a number of mea culpas. You’ll also recall that last November we were in an economic doldrums, cars weren’t selling, and anything manufacturers could do to get a leg up in the auto race was fair game. Toyota’s fall, then, definitely reduced their sales and although it’s hard to assess the improvement in competitor’s numbers (almost everyone has seen year-to-year decreases in sales since 2008), it’s clear Toyota’s non-issue was the industry’s gain. Although I don’t want to belittle the lives lost in the single tragic Lexus accelerator issue, it’s abundantly clear that Toyota was unfairly blamed for a number of issues that weren’t its fault.

Fast forward to the oil-streaked summer of 2010. Apple’s new iPhone had a fairly egregious error in signal strength representation and attenuation, a problem, that, in all fairness, from which all phones suffer. Take this charming video, for example:

I wrote last week that Antennagate was, in short, schadenfreude. Bloggers – myself included – have been flogging the iPhone’s benefits for years while giving short shrift to other devices. I’m guilty, MG is guilty, Gruber is guilty. We’re all iTards. So when such a visible and reproducible (under the right circumstances) problem appeared, the world piled on. Mainstream news, including local stations, picked up the story. Apple eventually had to pass out some bread and circus tickets for the downtrodden masses, ensuring that people would forget about attenuation and focus instead on all the free cases they’d be getting. As we move into the post-BP spill news cycle, rest assured that Antennagate will be forgotten and all the ink spilled will be for naught.

I bring both Toyota and Apple up as examples of “piling-on.” Like annual shark scares during the news doldrums of August and September, news organizations love to milk sensational stories and competitors love to keep the spin going. While RIM and Nokia are complaining at being lumped in with Apple’s antenna problems during the keynote, you know that their sales teams were scrambling for a way to grab customers in the resulting hubbub.

I’m here to bury Antennagate, not to praise Apple. I don’t trust corporations. They don’t care about us and they don’t care about their workers (see Foxconn). They care about cash. But, as a whole, I like to think that the market forces the best products to the top. Apple did a lot wrong with this new design and they will have to fix it in the next iteration. But the piling-on is a lot less about Apple and more about a general malaise in the handset industry. A giant’s loss is everyone’s gain, no matter how much Apple’s competitors claim otherwise.

Note to Trolls: Please offer a spirited excoriation of my assessment below.