Apple’s salty CES ad slogan has a sinister history

Bad burn.
Bad burn.
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The world’s largest gadget conference, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), is about to begin in Las Vegas. Modifying Sin City’s famous slogan, Apple took a dig at its competitors, declaring “What happens on your iPhone, stays on your iPhone” on a gigantic ad plastered on a side of a hotel overlooking the conference.

The ad seems to be implying that Apple—which traditionally doesn’t have an official presence at CES—values the privacy of its customers, unlike Google, Amazon, or Samsung, with which it is competing in the phone and smart speaker markets, and all of which have come under fire for privacy issues. But it’s also a misfire.

Popularized as an enormously successful advertising campaign for Vegas in the early 2000s, “What happens in XX, stays in XX” has for decades been used as a wink-wink, nudge-nudge device to hide sexual infidelity or other indiscretions. The phrase supposedly originated in the 1970s among a male rugby teams, The Times of London writes, and one rock star claimed it as his in a graphic and demeaning to women description of his bandmates’ sexual conquests on tour. As Heather Timmons and Annalisa Merelli noted for Quartz, in it is also hidden “an insidious mindset that has often enabled abuses of power.”

The cultural meme came up recently during the US Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh, who was revealed to have used the phrase twice in reference to his partying as a young man over the years (“What happens at Georgetown Prep stays at Georgetown Prep” was one example). His party habits were part of the scrutiny because of allegations that he sexually assaulted Christine Blasey Ford as a teenager. Timmons and Merelli write:

There is no stronger protection for a powerful man, even in front of the law, than the word, or the silence, of other powerful men.

For decades, a version of “What happens in Vegas” allowed men to sexually harass women with impunity, and even punish them if they complained, because who’s going to believe a woman? What happened at Miramax, stayed at Miramax; what happened at CBS, stayed at CBS, thanks to a small, silent, powerful group. Harassers’ enablers were often men; the victims were almost always women.

While it’s perhaps not great for a company to use a slogan associated with men’s abuse of power against women, it’s particularly misguided when said company has had a massive scandal involving a hack of nude photos of female celebrities from its products. In 2014, hundreds of photos were obtained from users’ iCloud accounts and posted online.

Apple did not respond to a request for comment.