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Framing Apple’s iPhone keynote

Framing Apple’s iPhone keynote


Paging George Lakoff. George Lakoff to Apple Park, please

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This year’s iPhone event is done and dusted, and now we’re all sitting in the interregnum between the announcements and the reviews. I’ve been lucky enough to live blog these events for years, but the process of creating a live blog is weird. I was taking photos for the site during the keynote, and since I’m a “spray and pray” kind of photographer, I took upwards of 1,600 photos in just a couple of hours.

I point that out just to say that my attention was more focused on what Apple was doing than the reaction to it. I only had so much bandwidth, and most of it was taken up by the camera. So when I had a chance later to look at all the coverage (and Twitter jokes), it didn’t come as a huge surprise to see that there was a lot of shrugging this year. “S-year” keynotes often feel like downers to the tech world, even though S-model iPhones are often Apple’s most popular and well-loved devices.

Apple has a pattern, and it sticks with it

It’s certainly too early to say whether that sales pattern will repeat itself this year, but since my attention was dominated by the keynote, another kind of pattern crystalized for me as I was snapping away with the camera: Apple’s structure for announcing new features has a very specific and repeatable narrative structure.

So that’s what this week’s Processor (hey, it’s back!) is about. Maybe Apple’s framing technique was so easy to see because there were fewer product announcements this year, and the announcements that did happen were so straightforward. I saw Apple framing product announcements in a way very similar to how George Lakoff talks about politicians framing issues.

This year’s framing around the camera was especially fascinating. Arguably, the innovation on the iPhone XS that will be most noticeable to customers is the camera. And with that camera, Apple is trying to do some very similar stuff to what the Pixel 2 does: it takes multiple photos at once, it stitches them together, and it does more computation.

But you know what didn’t get mentioned at all during the keynote? Any other smartphone cameras. Apple would rather you frame the new iPhone as a thing that’s getting closer to replacing a DSLR, not as a thing that is in the scrum with other smartphone cameras. Apple sets the terms of the world and of the things that exist in it. That’s the frame.

Lakoff writes:

This gives us a basic principle of framing for when you are arguing against the other side: Do not use their language. Their language picks out a frame — and it won’t be the frame you want.

Once the frame is established, within that frame, Apple tells a story where one thing leads to the next. Here’s how that usually goes:

  1. Talk about how great Apple products have always been
  2. Talk about specs and tech details on the new thing
  3. Talk about how Apple’s new thing will let you do amazing new things

Apple keeps doing these keynotes specifically to create that frame and tell that story. They don’t (just) exist so you will know what the new feature or product is; they exist so you can see yourself as a character in Apple’s story. They’re Apple’s best chance to set the terms of the discussion for its products.

Even in an S-year keynote, where the announcements aren’t that game-changing, Apple can still use this narrative-setting structure to shape how people think about their products. It might be even more important in an S-year.

The real point of the keynote is to make you see yourself as a character in Apple’s story

I don’t think that Apple is unique in consciously deploying a narrative frame as a technique, but I do think that the company has shown a deeper, more conscious awareness of its structure and importance than anybody else. It knows that most people will forget the feature but remember the story arc — or at least remember the feeling that story arc is meant to evoke.

To be clear, I’m not pointing out these rhetorical techniques because I think they’re somehow disingenuous. Apple may be deploying tactics we more often see in political discourse, but that doesn’t mean that it’s just propaganda. It’s marketing. And Apple has proven itself to be very good at marketing over the years.