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The Reason for those Tawdry Tabloid Rumors about Steve Jobs' Health

Plenty of buzz today about the National Enquirer story that claims Apple (AAPL) CEO Steve Jobs has six weeks to live and has photos supposedly of him, looking gaunt, entering and leaving the Stanford Cancer Center. Good thing his meeting with President Barack Obama is tonight.

Did you detect a note of sarcasm? Good. Yes, Steve Jobs could be terminally ill, suffering from pancreatic cancer. But a tabloid story that pries into someone's personal life and relies on the pronouncements of doctors who are not oncologists and have never even met Jobs, let alone examined him, is just sleazy. (BNET refused to run the tabloid pictures.)

However, the truth is that Apple brought this kind of coverage on itself by previously failing to be upfront and disclose Jobs' past medical leaves and crediting way too much of the company's phenomenal success to one person, Steve Jobs.

That's why many shareholders were angry when the "hormonal imbalance" that Apple gave as the reason that Jobs took leave in 2009 turned out to be liver failure that needed a transplant. The reaction was more severe than it otherwise might have been because Apple has long been a Jobs junkie. The company has allowed the public to attribute its success to Jobs. When people think he is sick, the stock price takes an immediate hit.

What really drove the Enquirer to presumably follow Jobs and take surreptitious photos is because he and Apple have made use of the techniques of celebrity marketing:

Apple manages its appearance so hard and successfully that it did something that no other technology business had done before: It turned itself into a celebrity. Apple fans -- and apologies in advance to those who don't fall into the fanboy category -- have the same reaction to the company as many people do to well-known celebrities, or even to cult entertainment brands like Star Trek. They want to feel part of the nurturing whole and yearn in particular for the leader -- whether Steve Jobs or Captain Kirk -- to love them.
The image of Apple is Jobs, wearing mock turtleneck, appearing as the guru who inspires all the minions. It's one big reason why secrecy is so important to the company -- and why Apple has been able to so successfully play the press with well-timed leaks. Because Apple and Jobs are a great topic for gossip.

When you sell a star's glamor, you don't want pictures of the person hanging out in a bathrobe making the rounds. Once the mechanics of celebrity marketing are in place, you can reap the benefits, but expect the costs and consequences. The biggest is that when all hangs on the one person, trying to sell the public on a replacement gets pretty damned difficult.

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