Free wasn't The Sweetest Thing, just ask Apple and Bono

Tim Cook and U2
(Image credit: Getty Images)

When it comes to shopping, even trying to find the Best Black Friday deals, one phrase that can turn off as many consumers as it attracts is "Free."

Some people learn this the hard way.

Almost a decade ago and at the end of a breakneck product event that included the introduction of the first Apple Watch and ultra-thin iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus (yes, the bendable one), Apple surprised us with a performance by U2. Actually, that wasn't the real surprise. Instead, it was a completely new U2 album released for free to every single iTunes subscriber.

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That's right, everyone got a 10-song album dumped into their iTunes account whether they wanted it or not. The response was, how should we put this, less than enthusiastic, with most people treating the album like a computer virus they had to scrub from their PC. Stories like this one appeared soon after the album drop.

Imagine if Taylor Swift's Midnights album suddenly started playing on your home speaker system and you couldn't stop it or remove it from your playlist. Swifties might love it but death metal fans probably wouldn't be so forgiving.

The backlash from the U2 album push onto iTunes was so bad, Apple quickly published a utility that would help you remove the tenacious song collection (people would remove it and it would mysteriously reappear) and Bono issued an apology.

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People are talking about this unwanted giveaway again after U2 frontman Bono revealed that the whole mess was his idea.

Writing in The Guardian, Bono said Apple CEO Tim Cook was, initially, cool to the concept, telling Bono, “There’s something not right about giving your art away for free.”

Cook relented but Bono says that he, and not Apple's leadership, shoulder the blame, writing:

"At first I thought this was just an internet squall. We were Santa Claus and we’d knocked a few bricks out as we went down the chimney with our bag of songs. But quite quickly we realized we’d bumped into a serious discussion about the access of big tech to our lives."

Implied value

For me, it's a reminder that the cost of something, even a great deal, matters little if it's for something you don't want.

A package you expect on your doorstep is welcome, but an unexpected bouquet of flowers from a secret admirer, perhaps not so much.

Even if someone liked or, perhaps, didn't have strong feelings one way or the other about U2, giving away their album for free probably altered perceptions of the work.

A 2012 Vanderbilt University study found that consumers can infer low quality from low prices. In the case of U2's album, people might've thought that, if the band and Apple were giving this music away, it must be bad (coincidentally, I can't remember a single hit off that album).

That same study, however, found that people also believe low price equals "good value." As a result, we're hooked on the kind of deals you'll find this upcoming Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

Would you look sideways at a deal that offered to give away a product for free? You might. I know that in all these years I've conducted Yard Sales on my lawn, I literally cannot give things away. My useless tchotchkes must cost something - even if it's only a few dollars - in order for people to want and buy them. It's that whole concept of "implied value." Something that's free might appear to be worth nothing. An old vase that costs $5 must be worth, at least, something.

U2 and Apple's album giveaway clearly would've been better received as an opt-in or as a value-add for every iPhone 6 someone purchased. Ah, but hindsight is 2020.

Clearly, Bono, Apple, and the tech industry learned their lesson. There's never been a similar giveaway and I don't think we want one.

Lance Ulanoff
US Editor in Chief

A 35-year industry veteran and award-winning journalist, Lance has covered technology since PCs were the size of suitcases and “on line” meant “waiting.” He’s a former Lifewire Editor-in-Chief, Mashable Editor-in-Chief, and, before that, Editor in Chief of and Senior Vice President of Content for Ziff Davis, Inc. He also wrote a popular, weekly tech column for Medium called The Upgrade.

Lance Ulanoff makes frequent appearances on national, international, and local news programs including Live with Kelly and Ryan, Fox News, Fox Business, the Today Show, Good Morning America, CNBC, CNN, and the BBC.