Controversy: There’s an App for That


Recently the App Store has been in the news quite a bit for some controversial apps it accepted, and it seems a route savvy marketers can now use to skip traditional media and go straight for big exposure. Forget newspapers and TV; the best way to get the word out is via the App Store, and the controversy Apple creates when it accepts or rejects an app. But is it good for Apple?

Apple’s acceptance of an app giving information about the “ex-gay” movement caused one heck of a stir. People were talking about it everywhere, and petitions were flying left and right. Regardless of your stance on the issue of the app’s acceptance or content, the app’s developers walk away winners. In order to post a negative review, Apple requires someone to download (“purchase”) the app even if it’s free. Detractors (and some supporters) rushed to buy a product solely for the fact they didn’t like it. So the app garnered not only tons of press, but sales during its brief existence, too.

Similarly, an app that helps the user find speed traps and DWI checkpoints has inspired law enforcement and even U.S. lawmakers to debate the issue. Until Congress got involved, I had no interest in the app, but I sure downloaded it after all the chatter. I’m predicting the infamous Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church will soon submit an app and publicly display their rejection by Apple, too.

The amazing thing about these apps is that they are merely app-packaged versions of information the developers already had on their websites. Both the “ex-gay” and speed trap websites most likely struggled to get users and publicity prior to releasing apps. For the relatively low price of a developer kit, and some programming, now everyone is talking about them. The small business owner in me gives them a huge thumbs up for getting their message out in a cost-effective way.

Heck, when Apple pulled the “ex-gay” app recently and when (I predict) they pull the speed trap app, we’ll talk about both all the more: more of the developers’ message getting out, more hits to the website, and more supporters among the many detractors. Ironically, if Apple rejected these apps outright, they’d get nearly as much publicity. When Apple rejected (excuse me, “did not approve”) the Google Voice app, more people started asking what Google Voice was. When Apple rejected a political cartoonist, I wanted to see what he was drawing.

All this chatter is great for Apple. All of a sudden, many iPhone owners wanted to know how to download these apps to either try them out or speak out against them. That likely means more of those registered credit card numbers Steve spoke about in his keynote and more users of the App Store in general. More eyeballs in the App Store is good for developers. Talk about no losers in the app economy!

Apple loves being the center of attention, and the app approval process is a big part of its ability to maintain that focus. These fringe apps keep people talking about Apple and its product. We simply don’t hear this chatter on the Android platform. Android generally accepts everything, so it’s much more difficult to get the word out — positive or negative. With something as controversial as “curing” homosexuality, did Apple not think people would complain? Sure, but in order to post their complaints in a place where it would be most visible to the app’s intended audience, users had to log in and buy the very app they derided.

As a lightning rod for controversy, the App Store is also a terrific PR machine. It may not be the most above-board way to draw attention to your cause or product, but it’s effective, and will likely remain so until (if ever) Apple establishes some hard-and-fast rules for its App Store approval process. And that’s not something it’s unlikely to do any time soon if people keep clicking, downloading and purchasing.

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