Will New iPhone Colors Create A Hierarchy Among Users?

After Apple’s announcement this week, choosing which iPhone to buy won’t be such a black-and-white decision.

Buyers now have a cheaper, albeit more colorful option in the iPhone 5c (starting at $99, with a contract), which comes in white, blue, pink, green or yellow. Deciding to go with the newest top-of-the-line model, the iPhone 5s ($199 and up), means picking between gold, silver, or even “space gray.” (The gold has been mocked endlessly — check out Conan O’Brien’s Team Coco parody ad for the gold phone.)

Despite tepid reviews this week, the iPhone still carries social value, says Roger Stahl, associate professor of communication studies at the University of Georgia.

“The iPhone is a social sign in addition to being a tool,” Stahl says. “It is worn like a piece of fashion, emails are conspicuously ‘Sent with my iPhone,’ the shape changes to signal that the owner has the newest model, whole communities speculate about what the new iPhone will be like, etc.,” he says.

So if the iPhone is in fact a social sign, do the new colors mean new distinctions between users?

Options were previously limited to black and white, and before the introduction of the iPhone 5 a year ago, it didn’t seem that easy to tell apart the different models.

Now, the color of your phone signals the price you were willing to pay.

An iPhone is an iPhone. But now there’s a clear, and quite colorful, distinction between who paid the big bucks and who decided to go cheap.

Stahl says that Apple has to be careful not to destroy the social reasons people would buy the newest model. “That is, Apple still wants iPhone 5 users to be able to display the fact that they bought the top-of-the line phone,” he says. “So the strategy here is to differentiate between colored plastic and aluminum bodies.”

“Cheap” is a relative term when considering the 5c’s $99 price tag, and that’s only if you sign a carrier contract. But the introduction of colors that signal how much you spent may create a hierarchy among iPhone users that never really seemed to exist.

Rachel Quester is an intern on NPR’s business desk.

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