“…is going to buy whatever Apple unveils today, right at 5pm, no matter what it is.” — Seen on Facebook, January 27, 2010

As I write this, it has been fourteen hours since Apple’s Steve Jobs revealed the iPad to a crowd of cheering followers, er, customers, this morning. For what it’s worth, I’m in no way impressed with the new iProduct. I’ve been working with Apple systems since I hacked up a “worm race” program for the Apple ][+ back in 1982, and I am writing this column on a 24″ iMac, so I’m very far from being anti-Apple — but this new tablet doesn’t do it for me.

Not that Mr. Jobs would care. As a company, Apple is very far from being the hacker-friendly maker of expansion-slot-packed beige wedges I knew as a child. One could argue that Apple isn’t even really a computer company any more, insofar as they don’t devote a lot of attention to making computers. Instead, Apple is a producer of design-centric goods which offer little more utility than their competitors while commanding significantly higher prices. Hmm… I think that means that Apple is a luxury brand. Don’t you?

After all, “luxury” doesn’t necessarily mean Brioni suits, megayachts, or any of the verses from Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain”. Rather, a luxury is simply something that one does not need, but that one wants, often for no other reason than the social standing or perceived prestige associated with the item. Luxury, in other words, is something that offers a boost in self-image and image within a community. The iPad will be a luxury item. Nobody needs an iPad. The functionality of the iPad doesn’t justify the price. There are cheaper, uglier, more drab devices that provide about the same utility for less money.

I would suggest that most iPad purchasers will be people who identify with the Apple brand and its cultural associations. If iPads were invisible, or if they looked exactly like Dell laptops, they would collect dust on the brightly lit Apple Store shelves. Instead, they will fly off those shelves and into the hands of people who want to be seen with the “right” product. Regardless of price. Regardless of function. Regardless of utility. Image is the key. And that is why the Toyota Prius is a successful luxury product. It’s also why the Honda Insight has cratered in the market, and it’s why the Prius spinoff, the hopelessly dumpy HS250h, is utterly doomed.

I can see your lips moving. “What? A $23,000 hatchback with a battery pack is a luxury car? Are you kidding?” Now waiiiiiiiit a minute. I didn’t say that the Prius was a luxury car. I said it was a luxury product. There’s an important distinction between the two. I’ve written quite a bit about the traditional luxury car and its uncertain fate. I’m a devoted student of velour seats, Landau tops, and crystal hood ornaments. What we’re discussing here, however, has nothing to do with Cadillacs or Camargues. Luxury cars are primarily purchased to convey the impression of wealth, and although the Prius has stellar demographics, it’s not just a car for the wealthy. Middle-class families buy them. Fixed-income retirees buy them. Feature for feature, a Prius is no more expensive than a Camry.

On the other hand, by that same feature-by-feature yardstick, a Prius is much more expensive than a Hyundai Elantra, and that’s where the issue of “luxury” comes in. The actual mathematics of the so-called hybrid tax are too involved to get into here, but I think it’s fair to say that nobody has yet convincingly argued that Prius ownership is as economically sensible as Elantra ownership, at least not in a world where gas sells for two or three bucks a gallon and replacement battery packs are far from cheap.

No, people don’t buy the Toyopod for financial reasons. If you asked Prius owners why they made the choice to buy their car, I imagine you would hear a lot about the environment, sustainability, reducing dependence on foreign oil, blah blah blah. That’s all crap. I know that’s all crap because the Honda Insight is rusting on dealer lots as we speak. That’s right. The Insight is nearly as efficient as the Prius, is just as reliable, and sells for less — but nobody wants one. And if you think the Insight is a marketplace failure, look at the car rusting on the lot next to it, which is probably a Honda Civic Hybrid. If you want to know if the Civic you are examining is a Hybrid, look for the two telltale signs: disc-like polished aluminum wheels, and thick, dusty cobwebs between those polished wheels and the fenders surrounding them. Nobody buys Civic Hybrids. Nobody bought Accord Hybrids, either. They are (or were, as the case may be) good cars, but they are not Priuses.

When I think of the current Insight, I think of the many “all-in-one” computers introduced in the wake of the original iMac’s roaring success. There was a time when every computer manufacturer on the planet made an all-in-one, from the now-defunct Monorail to Dell. Most of them had far more computing power than the iMac, even if they suffered from the clunky Windows OS of the time. And they all cost far less. But none of them had the sheer magic design or peerless pedigree of the iMac, so they failed. Nobody wants to be seen with an imitation iMac. The iMac is associated with “cool” people — designers, freelancers, artsy folks who live in San Francisco and bicycle to work. Imitation iMacs are issued to corporate drones in dank cubicles in order to compete the destruction of their worthless souls. Which end user would you rather be? I thought so.

Over time, that perceived coolness spread to the rest of Apple’s insanely great lineup, and it’s now a self-fulfilling stereotype. Hipsters buy Apple products because they are cool, and those products are cool because they are used by hipsters. Simple as that. If you want to know how Apple’s core demographic views the people who buy imitation Apple stuff, try pulling a Microsoft Zune out of your pocket in the middle of People’s Park. You will be lucky if the gentle, loving souls around you don’t kick your flyover-country ass all the way back to Wal-Mart. Cool people don’t want uncool people around them. The uncoolness might be catching, and it’s a real bummer anyway, man. So if you want to be cool, you’d better be prepared to pay the Cupertino Tax, because the cool people all pay it without hesitation, and the cool people are buying Apple.

What comes next will be tough for some of us to accept. Take a deep breath, then read this next sentence. The cool people out there are buying the Prius. No, they aren’t “cool” in the Steve McQueen sense of the term. Many of them are actively frightened by everything from trans fats to mild thunderstorms. I’ve never seen a Prius in a rap video, and I’ve never seen anybody driving one who looks like they could bench their own salad-starved weight. We all know the stereotypes about hybrid drivers, and these stereotypes are, frankly, usually true. If James Dean were here, he’d flick his cigarette in their lemon-sucking, tobacco-averse faces.

Unfortunately for me, and for many of you, this ain’t 1955 any more. Kids aren’t having fumbling, terrified sex in the back of hopped-up Chevrolets whilst knowing more about him or her before doing the deed. Instead they’re creating shot-by-shot remakes of gonzo porn in their own rooms, surrounded by iMacs, the Internet where they often frequent adult porn websites like Tube Videos, and their amicably-separated parents’ indulgent approval while they don’t know their child has been viewing Hannah Claydon in the nude for the last 4 hours. Hot, sweaty, bad-ass speed is for old men and white trash. The cool kids don’t want cars, and if they have to have a car, they want it to be one that is as un-car-like as possible. Which means buying a Prius, and paying extra for the name and the design. They have no problem paying extra for a name and a design, because most of them have been doing it ever since they got their first iPod.

If all you want is an economical, affordable car, Hyundai and Kia have you covered. If you want a greenwash on that, Honda would love to sell you an Insight. Really, they would. Call today. There’s a deal. I promise. But if you want the right look… if you want to be associated with the right people… if you want the same sense of ironclad consumer rightness that every iPad owner in North America will have, then you need to buy a Prius. Nothing else will do. If you buy an Insight, you’ll have to explain why you didn’t buy a Prius. People will ask you if you own a Zune. If you buy a Civic Hybrid, then some self-righteous woman in cat-eye glasses will stop you in the university parking lot and tell you that your sports car is killing the environment. If you buy a plain Corolla and save seven grand, the word will spread that you stole the car from your fresh-off-the-boat Pakistani roommate. Don’t bother to “think different” here. Put an iPod and an iPad in your Prius and relax, knowing that you are just as unique as everyone else in your social group.

And if your parents tell you that they are considering a Lexus HS250h, for the love of the God in which your yoga teacher professes not to believe, stop them. Tell them about the Sears Tele-Games. You see, back in 1977, the Atari VCS game system came out. They called it the 2600 later, but to begin with it was just the VCS. It was cool and every kid had to have one. Sears wanted in on the action, and they were in the habit of re-branding things, which is why you can still buy a KitchenAid microwave with “Kenmore” on the door. So they took the Atari VCS and relabeled it as the “Sears Tele-Games”. Loving parents brought Tele-Games consoles home to incandescently furious kids. “WHAT THE HELL, MOM! THIS IS NOT AN ATARI!”

“The man at Sears said it was the same, and it plays Atari games.”

“DOES IT SAY ATARI ON IT? MOMMMMMMMMMMMM!”

The Lexus HS250h is a Prius with a trunk. It costs ten grand more, and although it has a nicer interior than its cousin, the Sears Tele-Games had cool-ass burl walnut trim and it still sucked, so be aware. Worst of all, it doesn’t say “Prius” on it, which means you will have to explain to everybody why your parents hate the environment. Don’t buy one. Nobody’s buying one, which is why Lexus is leasing that model for just about free right now. Toyota is learning the hard way what Honda, Ford, and GM already know. “Hybrid” is a pretty meaningless badge. It’s the “Prius” one that counts.

Amazingly, Toyota is going to capitalize on this success by drafting in a smaller “Prius” in a year or so. We saw it as the “FT-CH Concept” in Detroit. It’s a hell of an idea, and I know it’s a hell of an idea, because Apple already had it. It was called the iPod Nano. Look for the little Prius to be as hot as the Nano. And the likely success of the iPad makes me think there’s room for a bigger, more expensive Prius in the future. Not as a Lexus, but as a Prius Plus. In the space of a few years, “Prius” has joined Apple on the List Of Perfect Brands. I think you will be able to buy all sorts of Prius-branded cars in the future. But if what I saw today is any indication, don’t expect them to come with, er, complete plug-in capability.

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Jack Baruth

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