The Apple and Amazon Side Hustles


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Both Apple and Amazon collect cash from companies that want to pitch their products to us. Let me make the case that these side hustles are icky conflicts of interest that hurt us — and ultimately these tech titans, too.

Here’s what I mean: Try typing “dog beds” into the search box on Amazon. You might assume that Amazon will show you what it considers to be the very best dog beds. But actually the first options you’ll see are most likely from companies that paid Amazon to appear directly in front of your eyeballs. They’re advertisements in semi-disguise. Amazon tags these listings as “sponsored,” and once you start to notice them you realize that these advertised products are everywhere.

Apple does this, too. Try searching for “fitness” in the iPhone app store. The first option might be a workout app that appears in a shaded blue box. Again, it’s an ad. (Android app stores tend to do this, too.)

Amazon and Apple preach their obsession with doing the best things for customers, but these advertising businesses aren’t really about us at all.

Advertising is not unusual or necessarily bad. The New York Times and many other reputable companies make money from ads. But I’d argue that what Apple and Amazon are doing is different from almost all other advertising.

Google, Facebook and The Times don’t usually show you ads and sell you the advertised product. The dog bed company pays Amazon to make sure that its products are listed prominently so that people will buy them from Amazon.

In the companies’ defense, there are some other advertising businesses that are also closed loops. Kellogg’s might pay the supermarket to make sure that its cereal boxes are at eye level on the store shelf. That’s similar to what Apple and Amazon do. (Though the supermarket is not valued at more than $1.5 trillion, as both Apple and Amazon are.)

When companies pay Amazon and Apple to get noticed, that likely trickles down in the form of higher product or app prices for us. You might say that all advertising is annoying and a tax on consumers. But on Apple and Amazon, we’re there to pay for…