Did Fortnite make Apple uncool?
When Lynne Collins takes her kids out for pizza—she emphasizes the restaurant has “outdoor seating”—the last words she expects to hear from her three young children are “lawsuit” and “Big Brother.”
The peculiar banter stems from a feud between Epic Games, maker of the popular video game Fortnite, and Apple. Fortnite makes money selling virtual goods like Nike Air Jordan's and Adidas hoodies to its 350 million users, but must give Apple a 30 percent cut whenever it sells items through its App Store, which is too much for Epic’s liking. Last Thursday, the company released an update that circumvented those fees, prompting Apple to quickly pull Fortnite off its platform.
Things quickly escalated from there. Epic filed a lawsuit against the iPhone maker that same day, alleging monopolistic behavior. And perhaps to greater effect, the game maker also dropped a video that flips the script on Apple’s widely celebrated “1984” commercial. The ad shows a popular Fortnite heroine running through a dimly lit auditorium and hurling a unicorn-shaped club against a massive screen depicting Apple as “Big Brother.”
“It was the craziest thing,” says Collins, a former communications director at Saatchi & Saatchi who now runs her own public relations firm. “All [the kids] talked about was Fortnite and the lawsuit. They were so fired up to ‘free Fortnite.’”
Many felt the “1984” reference would be lost on Fortnite’s younger players, but it appears grown ups may have underestimated the game's cultural power. And while Apple has thrived on its hip, youthful image, it may now find itself on the defensive against a key constituency who likely believes the iPhone maker is old, authoritarian and perhaps even uncool.
“When my 9-year-old asks what happened in 1984, that tells me the spot worked,” says Chris Erb, CEO of gaming-focused agency Tripleclix. “The ad was just as much of a dig at Apple’s sensibilities as it is trying to leverage sentiment that Apple has become the establishment.”
Erb’s children—9-year-olds Christian and Ashton—learned about the ad’s backstory after “immediately” looking it up on YouTube. “They understood Apple was the bad guy,” he says. “And they were angry at Apple for blocking Fortnite.”
On social media, the hashtag “FreeFortnite” began trending about an hour after Epic released its commercial. In one tweet, a young boy calls Apple “Big Brother” and bashes his iPad with a baseball bat in response to the company removing the game from its platform.
“Epic clearly thought this through,” says Patrick Hanlon, CEO of brand consultancy Thinktopia. “They are trying to display as much value as they can to their fans and zealots, hoping they will raise a ruckus and free Fortnite.”
Still, not everyone understood the meaning behind Fortnite’s commercial. Karen Gebhart, a senior VP and management director at FCB/RED, says her 12-year-old Davis saw Fortnite’s ad twice and didn’t know it was a remake of a famous commercial. “Davis gets that Apple is banning Fortnite, but doesn’t know what he is supposed to do to help prevent that from happening,” says Gebhart. “He says he’ll play Fortnite on Xbox or Nintendo Switch if the game isn’t available on Apple.”
“But seeing the commercial did make him want to play Fortnite,” she added.
Meanwhile, Apple responded to Epic by saying it won’t change its fees, adding that it’s trying to keep its App Store fair for all developers. That was “a very corporate answer,” says Brandon Rochon, chief creative officer and CEO of Kastner North America.
“They absolutely made Apple look uncool,” says Rochon. “[Epic] came out like hackers and used their own stuff against them.”
He adds: "When you have fanfare and true culture like Fortnite has, people will rebel. Fortnite will always have the people on its side because Apple has become the very thing it said it wouldn’t.”