Opportunity Lost: Apple Finds the iPhone, but Misses Chance to Laugh at Itself

Last Updated Apr 21, 2010 11:41 AM EDT

If there had been a hidden camera trained on me as I read Gizmodo's exhaustive coverage of the iPhone 4G that got left in a bar by Apple employee Gray Powell, it would've shown someone smirking while they read. It doesn't really get much more humorous than one of Apple's top-secret prototypes getting into the wrong hands -- and in a bar no less! Unless you're Apple, of course, which seems to take the release of everything -- even iTunes v. 9.0.3.15 -- with the kind of seriousness that was once reserved for things like the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The incident has ended with Apple getting the phone back, after the company's general counsel wrote a terse letter (on paper!) to Gizmodo asking "where to pick up the unit." (The retrieval apparently happened at Gizmodo editor Jason Chen's house in what Nick Denton, Gawker Media chief -- and owner of Gizmodo -- described as an "almost entirely silent exchange.")

So, while most of us were laughing uproariously -- per The New York Post, Gizmodo netted eight million page views -- the one thing missing from the whole caper was a sense of humor on Apple's part, primarily because the company doesn't have one.

For one thing, that's what makes any speculation that this was, in fact, a carefully-crafted PR stunt, completely specious (sorry, Steve Tobak). Apple would never set itself up to be the butt of a joke, not when there are world-peace negotiations at risk, front-facing video chat cameras to launch.

But the more important issue is that Apple, at some point, will pay dearly for not humanizing its brand. (And no, the control freak-ish Steve Jobs doesn't count as warm and fuzzy.) It would have been welcome if the company had played along, put out a tongue-in-cheek statement about its successful recovery of the phone, and shown us, that it, too, understood how funny the situation was. As Federico Viticci, editor of MacStories.net tweeted: "If Apple was smart (and had a sense of humor), they'd have Gray Powell introduce the new iPhone at the event in June."

But Apple doesn't do that kind of thing, even in a situation, like this one, where the stakes aren't very high. This is not Toyota's worrying about car safety, or Exxon spilling millions of gallons of oil. Not even close.

But for almost all extremely powerful companies, at some point a Toyota moment happens. When that time comes, being viewed as less of a monolith will come in mighty handy for Apple. The problem is that the company is now so accustomed to dominance that it hasn't understood that concept in a long, long time, and might not, anytime soon -- not when it just announced that it had its best non-holiday quarter ever.

Meanwhile, making brands human is one of the core tenets in marketing these days. Just ask Toyota, or Zappos ... or consumers. According to a recent study by the ad agency Euro RSCG, 82 percent of consumers in the U.S. and Europe believe "corporations of the future will need to show a more 'human' face by caring about people (employees, customers, suppliers) and taking a more active role in community and social causes."

For me, Apple's big mistake wasn't that the phone slipped out of its hands. It was in not taking the opportunity to poke fun at the fact, that we all -- even people at Apple -- are human.