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You Should Have Asked - How Apple Confused U2 With Shakespeare

16/10/2014 08:45 BST | Updated 15/12/2014 10:59 GMT

In a live Facebook session this week Bono did something he rarely does. He said sorry. In response to an accusation from a questioner that U2 had been 'rude' to thrust their new songs on unsuspecting iTunes users he said: "Oops, I'm sorry about that."

OK, so it is not exactly the most humble of apologies, but for a very successful man known for having a heart and ego of similar gigantean proportions this was quite a big deal.

"I had a beautiful idea," he said. "And we got carried away with ourselves. Artists are prone to that kind of thing."

Apple and U2's mistake was actually quite simple. They forgot one of the fundamental rules of digital marketing laid out by the author Seth Godin in his 1999 book Permission Marketing. For a lot of people the issue wasn't about the sentiment but the intrusion. We live in a world where everyone is vying for our attention, where every public place is now full of noise and unwanted clutter, and where we have the increasingly uneasy knowledge that companies are crunching their 'big data' in order to try and influence us in covert and manipulative ways.

All U2 and Apple needed to do was ask - to invite people to opt in. Then what turned out to be a PR nightmare for Apple could have been a coup. Thanks, U2 fans would have said. The rest of us meanwhile would have nodded in appreciation at the idea, hoping that it would be followed by a similar deal from Megadeath or Michael Buble depending on our tastes.

So there's the reminder in this - seek permission.

Apple and U2 are no promotional slouches though so how come they made such a basic error? Probably because they misjudged U2's place in our popular culture. There comes a point in super-stardom where you transcend the normal rules of marketing. Apple themselves are a case in point. What are essentially product launches have become near religious events that make the mainstream news channels and broadsheets. Certain celebrities have made the same leap. Jamie Oliver no longer occurs to many as a TV chef. He is an evangelist for good food.

We don't get upset when we see Jamie's cherubic face on the front of a magazine holding up some JO branded organic pomodoro sauce. We are relieved. The ultimate example of this transcendence is 'The Bard'. There's no disputing the brilliance and importance of Shakespeare's work but he has the best marketing network in the world - the public education system. It would be interesting to see how the reputations of other historical writers might have fared if their books had been pushed on every kid in the land from the age of 12.

Apple's error was to assume Bono and U2 had made such a transcendence. The results show they haven't. Huge and influential as U2 are, what the public's response shows is Bono is no Shakespeare. He is still a pop star pushing a product in non-fan's eyes, hence their reaction is 'how dare you!'

It might also show Apple's age. It would have been intriguing to see what would have happened if Apple had given away Alt J or Daft Punk.

As Iggy Pop wryly noted this stunt might have looked to some people like U2 were "giving away music before it can flop, in an effort to stay huge." Maybe Apple too.