Apple‘s ruby red iPhone 7 will soon be available around the world. Each Special Edition (Product) RED iPhone 7 and 7 Plus shows with its color that the purchase of the phone helps generate funds for the fight against HIV/AIDs.
But in China, the picture is fuzzier.
There, where a red iPhone could a big seller for Apple (see China’s flag, culture), the company’s online retail web site has no mention of (Product) RED or that proceeds from the sale of the red iPhone 7 and 7 Plus in China will help fund the fight against HIV and AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa via the Global Fund. (Apple has not disclosed what percentage of each phone’s cost is donated to charity).
AIDS and HIV are significant public health issues in China, which might make you think the Chinese government would rally behind (Product) RED and Apple’s efforts.
“It is a big public health and social issue,” said Hofstra University Asst. Professor Christina Wu, Ph.D., an expert on Chinese culture and society. In recent years, local charities and organizations have made progress in addressing the HIV/AIDs epidemic there. But, said Dr. Wu, ” Officially and politically the government still has a very cautious approach.”
Which may explain why Apple’s marketing of the red iPhone differs so greatly between the U.S. online store and its Chinese counterpart.
Apple’s Chinese web site has a Red iPhone splash screen very similar to the one for U.S. consumers — one might not even notice the relatively subtle differences.
Both call the phone a “Special Edition” and feature the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, their brushed aluminum backs gleaming in red. The translated black text above the phones on the Chinese site, also on a sea of red, says “iPhone 7 is now more red.” On Apple’s U.S. site, the splash says: “iPhone 7: Now in (Product) RED.”
We looked at over a dozen other Apple country sites and saw virtually the same text over and over. All mention (Product) RED. China is the outlier.
Then there is the other, perhaps more subtle, difference.
On the U.S. site, a click down to the the Red iPhone product page features a photo of the new iPhones. It shows two sets of iPhone 7 and 7 Plus devices. One pair partially covers the second pair so that we see all of the the red backs of both models. Each features the silver Apple logo and, near the bottom, “iPhone” and right below that “(Product) RED.” The other pair of phones show the white fronts, but are mostly obscured by the phones in the foreground.
On Apple China’s page, there’s a similar product beauty shot, but it’s the reverse image of the U.S. one. Instead of featuring the all-red aluminum backs, it incongruously shows the white fronts of both the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus and only a portion of the red backs. If “(Product) RED” appears on those devices, it’s clearly hidden from view.
The U.S. page also explicitly mentions that, “Every purchase contributes to the Global Fund to support HIV/AIDS programs and help deliver an AIDS-free generation.”
There’s no such text on the Chinese page.
In Dr. Wu’s estimation, Apple did what every foreign company must do, presented the product to the Chinese government and waited for feedback. It’s like, she told us, movie producers who bring films to China so the government can look at the themes and ideas and tell them what must be cut or removed before they can present it to Chinese audiences.
There’s little doubt the Chinese government wanted the red iPhone to be sold in China.
“Even in China, Apple carries with it a certain charm. The Chinese pay the same amount, sometimes more. That speaks volumes about the popularity of product,” she said.
Perhaps, she added, the Chinese government chose to focus on the obvious aesthetic appeal of a red iPhone and excise the more controversial charity connection. “Red is a very popular color for Chinese culture,” she added.
“The Chinese government has a history of harassing HIV activists and, as Facebook and Twitter could tell Apple, it’s critical to maintain a positive relationship with the government in order to do business in China,” said Hofstra University Asst. Professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Journalism, Media Studies, and Public Relations Kara Alaimo, Ph.D., via email. “Of course, in this case, we don’t know whether that was the deciding factor for Apple.”
Apple certainly won’t talk about negotiations with the Chinese government, but it’s hard to imagine any other way this could have happened.
The red iPhone is for sale in China where, for now at least, Dr. Wu has seen little buzz about it on the country’s popular mobile social network WeChat. That may change, though, as Chinese consumers buy the phone and see, for the first time, the (Product) RED logo on the back (assuming it’s there — the phones aren’t officially on the market until Friday and Apple won’t comment).
Whether or not the logo survives in the Chinese market, Chinese red iPhone customers will be contributing to the cause. When asked by Mac Rumors about missing (Product) RED nomenclature, Cook said, “We donate to the Global Fund on every iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus we sell in every country in the world.”
“I’m sure Apple has good intentions,” said Dr. Wu, but she believes they probably wanted to avoid the kind of public controversy Apple suffered through when it pulled the New York Times app from the Chinese apps store.