Bloomingdale's, I think, first pulled off this trick. For a while, in the '70s, they had people scrambling to carry their Big Brown shopping bags. Amazingly, shoppers actually did the store's advertising for them, while acting lucky to have such a hot item.
Abercrombie & Fitch later upped the stakes, making it uber-cool to wear shirts that display "Abercrombie" like a billboard.
But Apple tops them all. Apple is the king. No company has grabbed the kookiness of the desperate shopper and spun it into such a publicity machine.
With the release last week of the iPhone 4, there were stories all across the country of people camping out, sleeping in lines -- some as early as two days before -- just to get their hands on the new device.
And when the doors opened, you'd have thought Justin Bieber was waiting inside. People applauded. They screamed. Some actually squealed.
This, for a phone.
Never mind that the device would be for sale the next day, too. Never mind that there's a reason it's called iPhone 4 -- because there have already been three iPhones before it.
Never mind. Apple, always brilliant in marketing, has targeted whatever human gene contains the "gotta be first" chromosome. If you have this in your DNA, all the common sense in the world can't get through your skull.
And Apple, like Uncle Sam, wants you!
I watched the news reports Thursday morning from New York, from Los Angeles, from San Francisco -- all of sleepy-eyed people desperate to get their hands on the new iPhone. There was a guy getting married that night waiting in line. On his wedding day? There was a guy who told a reporter, "This is better than losing your virginity."
(Once upon a time, that guy would be connected to the wedding day guy. But that was before bell-bottoms, let alone the 3G network.)
There was even a guy who had slept in the street for two days, and thus had the honor of being first in line at one particular store. When the reporter asked him why he did it, he said, "I had the time. I wanted the phone."
The second part is obvious.
The first is worrisome.
Do we really have a country where perfectly healthy young people "have the time" to camp outside for two days so they can buy an electronic device? Most people who sleep in the street do so because they don't have money to spend, not because they have it to burn.
Remember, this was not a line to see a once-in-a-lifetime concert, or for limited galley seating in a famous court trial.
This was a line to give your money to one of the world's already-richest corporations, just so you could make a phone call, send an e-mail or download something -- all of which you can already do with existing devices.
Estimates for sales of the iPhone 4 were around 1.5 million for the first day. There were reports of waits as long as eight hours to buy one. Eight hours?
Well, at the risk of overreacting, shame on anyone who waited that long. Shame on anyone who slept in the street or ate a meal in a tent to buy this thing. If you have so much free time, use it for some good. Find the people who have to sleep in streets and spend some time helping them.
I'm not anti-capitalism. I adore gadgets. I have cell phones. But there's a point when you are crossing a pathetic line, and that point comes when you are suckered by a company that limits availability in order to use you as human advertising -- creating buzz, creating demand -- by suggesting that the coolest people own these things immediately and the losers don't.
If this means so much to you, you should place a call to your soul. If this seems a good use of your time, film yourself sleeping at a shopping mall and watch how silly you look.
At the least, go ask Apple for a paycheck. If you're going to do their advertising for them, it's the least they can do.
Contact Albom, a columnist for the Detroit Free Press, at email@example.com.