There are a lot of moral and ethical implications of Apple’s ongoing dispute with the U.S. Justice Department. For such a high-profile battleground in the war between consumer privacy and public safety, public opinion on this issue is extremely important. We’re not here to evaluate that. The Pew Research Center has already done it beautifully.
According to Pew, 51% of Americans believe Apple should unlock the San Bernardino terror suspect’s iPhone. 38% believe they shouldn’t. 11% aren’t sure. What’s noteworthy, given our divisive political climate, is that a virtually even number of Democrats (55%) and Republicans (56%) believe Apple has a duty to unlock the phone. People of every age and education group support the DOJ. That would seem to indicate that Apple is at the risk of alienating consumers if they don’t comply with the federal courts.
But are they? Just because Apple is defying public opinion, will it affect them at the cash register? Could it actually help them? The Department of Justice thinks so, calling Apple’s stance a “marketing strategy.”
We decided to take a different approach to the research we ran today. Instead of gauging overall sentiment on the issue, we attempted to measure if and how Apple’s stance might affect sales of its crown jewel, the iPhone. Here is the question we asked and the top-line results.
Our sample of 2,417 U.S. adults shows something more complicated than Pew’s numbers. Of everyone surveyed, 21% said that Apple’s policy to keep user data encrypted will make them more likely to buy an iPhone with their next purchase. 14% say it will make them less likely. 11% are unsure.
There are several reasons not to make an apple-to-apples comparison between our results and Pew’s. For one, our research ran over a 6-hour period today. Pew’s research ran over a 4-day period ending yesterday. Moreover, the question Pew asked was much different.
Pew’s Question: “As you may know, the FBI has said that accessing the iPhone is an important part of their ongoing investigation into the San Bernardino attacks while Apple has said that unlocking the iPhone could compromise the security of other users’ information do you think Apple:]? Should unlock the iPhone, Should NOT unlock the iPhone, Don’t Know/Refused”
Pew tied Apple’s encryption policy directly to the San Bernardino attacks. Ours was deliberately more general. Since our goal is to measure the business impact, rest assured that Apple will invest far more than the DOJ to control the long-term PR spin. Regardless of the dispute outcome, you likely won’t see references to San Bernardino, terrorism, or the FBI in future Apple marketing.
Most importantly, our respondents are making a much different judgment on the issue. Regardless of how consumers feel morally, will it affect their purchasing decisions? Notice that a hefty 55% of our respondents claim the DOJ standoff will have no effect on their decision to buy an iPhone. Lots of different people comprise that group: Smartphone shoppers who were never going to buy an iPhone anyway, people who were already going to buy an iPhone no matter what, or people who don’t and never will own a smartphone. In other words, only 45% of consumers are relevant to Apple’s business.
Given that, we rebased our results, removing the unaffected respondents, to get a clearer picture of the potential impact of Apple’s position.
Of relevant consumers, 45% say they are more likely to buy an iPhone for their next phone purchase, 31% are less likely, and 23% aren’t sure. Provided Apple can at least neutralize any big swings among the “Don’t Know” crowd, this looks like a clear net win for iPhone sales.
Why? Well, for one, there is a distinct group of consumers whose purchasing decisions are heavily influenced by a company’s social consciousness. As we see in our data, those people are squarely in Apple’s camp.
Furthermore, while Pew’s results showed very few differences across demographic groups, our question and our data tell a different story. Just look at the generational differences:
Of the people whose purchasing decisions may be affected by the Apple-DOJ dispute, 57% of Millennials say they are more likely to buy an iPhone with their next purchase versus only 19% who say they are less likely. Only Baby Boomers are less likely, in aggregate. Sufficed to say, it’s unlikely Apple views them as their priority growth market anyway. No offense, Mom.
For Department of Justice and political leaders looking to capitalize on the press opportunity, the Pew Center’s gauge of public opinion should provide gale-force winds behind their backs. But, for Apple, there are clear business reasons to withstand those winds, as long as they can. Whether the court system forces their hand one day or not, Apple’s efforts to ‘fight the good fight’ in the name of consumer privacy should bear fruit for iPhone sales long-term.