Badvertising: How To Dismantle an Atomic (Marketing) Bomb

Apple's free “gift” of U2’s latest album—downloaded automatically onto millions of iPhones—had people begging Apple to take it back. What ensued is a lesson on allowing customers to opt into content rather than bombarding them with it.


In this installment of MarketSmiths’ Badvertising we look at what went wrong when millions of iPhone users found a gift they did not ask for—and did not want—from superstar band U2. As usual, DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME!

Apple’s $100M U2 Free Album Mistake.

Back in October, 2004, Apple introduced the iPod U2 Special Edition as part of a partnership between Apple, U2 and Universal Music Group. “U2 and Apple have a special relationship where they can start to redefine the music business,” said Steve Jobs. “We want our audience to have a more intimate online relationship with the band, and Apple can help us do that,” said U2 lead singer Bono.

Ten years later, in September of 2014, it felt like old times at Apple’s annual autumnal event: the iPhone 6, the 6s and the Apple Watch were unveiled—and it was also announced that Songs of Innocence, the latest album from U2, was going to be automatically added to 500 million iTunes libraries—and therefore your iPhone—free, whether you wanted it or not. What a great marketing idea, who would object to a free album by one of the biggest rock bands ever? Millions of people, as things turned out. The Internet exploded with outrage at the gall of U2 forcing this, this thing on them! People took to social media asking who this U2 was, some swore to never listen to the album—or to U2—ever again. Wired’s Vijith Assar called the marketing idea a “devious giveaway” that was no better than “spam.” “…rock-and-roll as dystopian junk mail,” cried the Washington Post.


Wow. What a difference a decade can make. This was hardly the response that either Apple or U2 had hoped for and, after a massive Twitter backlash, the company was forced to pose a guide on how to remove the album from your library on its support page. Apologies from Apple and Bono soon followed, as well as the need for Apple to develop a remove button.

It was quite a slap in the face for a band who, just a half-dozen years earlier, could bill itself as the biggest band in the world without people rolling their eyes—so what happened? Why did so many people not only turn down the free album, but turn so viciously on both Apple and U2 for giving it to them?

One reason for the marketing backlash can be attributed to the fact that downloading is for derps and dweebs. Streaming is the preferred way for young people to listen to music today, and both Apple and U2 showed their age by thinking people wanted to download an album’s worth of files. Sure, Apple’s iTunes is still huge, but both the company and the band would have appeared a lot cooler if they had provided, say, a free 60-day Beats Music account that included a playlist of the album, and used the iTunes download as an option. Second, people don’t like things—even free music—forced on them, and virtual space that’s meant to be personal (an iPhone or an iPad’s storage system) was invaded by a corporate entity without consent—and they got pissed. It would have made better marketing sense if Apple had simply made the album available for free—if people wanted it. But then that would have robbed U2 of its vanity claim to have the biggest album release of all time—which plays into factor number three: U2 is no longer considered hip. These days hating on the band—calling them pompous, bombastic and egotistical, and their music derivative “dad rock”—is a popular Internet bloodsport. Bono and company are all in their 50’s and struggling to remain relevant in a Spotify/Pandora world—thus the iTunes gambit—meanwhile, the post-Jobs Apple has also stumbled lately and often loses cool points to once-laughable competitors like Samsung and Android.

It’s doubtful that either Apple or U2 will suffer any real lasting damage due to this sour note—they are both corporations too big to fail—still one thing is clear: neither Apple nor U2 found what they were looking for in this venture.

Jim Yoakum

Jim Yoakum

Jim recalls a priceless piece of advice that an English teacher once gave him. Throwing a dictionary onto his desk he said, “All of the words are in there, Yoakum, just put them in the right order.” Putting the right words in the right order has been Jim’s goal ever since, and he has honed his skills over the years to include award-winning copywriting, the scripting of three produced movies, the authoring of numerous novels and non-fiction books—and even a stint as writing partners with the late Graham Chapman of Monty Python fame. He is also US Curator of Chapman’s archives. To make himself even more insufferable, Jim has also produced comedy CDs and DVDs. While Jim does not lament his misspent youth, playing drums in a rock ‘n’ roll band, he does however wish he had back all of those brain cells that he ruthlessly killed.

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