By Philip Elmer-DeWitt
August 26, 2010

A study of 17 invitations issued over the past 9 years tells you only so much

Silicon Alley Insider’s Dan Frommer raised a good question Wednesday. “Is Apple really going to announce a TV gadget,” he asked, “at an event with a guitar on the invitation?”

The invitation he refers to is the one beckoning the press to an Apple (AAPL) special event in San Francisco next Wednesday, Sept. 1. The “TV gadget” is the lower-cost ($99 versus $229) version of the Apple TV set-top box widely rumored to be in the works.

The question matters to investors because Apple events have the power to move the stock, as Piper Jaffray’s Gene Munster reminded clients yesterday. If you don’t count 2008, when the entire market was in free-fall, Apple shares have risen an average of 12% over the past five years after the company’s September events.

But Apple special events can also move the stock down if they are perceived as a disappointment or if investors buy on the rumor and sell on the news. “I’m concerned that expectations of some kind of super duper iTV won’t be met,” wrote Julian Alexander on Investor Village’s AAPL Sanity board. “Personally I’m really hoping [Steve Jobs] reveals iPhone and iPad sales numbers. I think they’ll almost do more good than any product announcement he might make.”

In this context, the chronology of Apple invitations dating back to 2001 compiled by AAPLinvestors‘ Terry Gregory is instructive. If you match the wording and imagery with the products and services that were actually announced, it’s clear that Apple’s marketing department gives itself a lot of leeway in these things.

While many of the early invitations were fairly descriptive — “This year’s biggest music story is about to get even bigger” heralded the announcement of the iTunes music store for Microsoft (MSFT) Windows in 2003 — more recent special events tend to cover a lot of ground. At the Sept. 2, 2008 “Let’s Rock” event, for example, Apple announced, in addition to a new iPod nano, a new iPod touch and iTunes 8, the arrival of HD TV shows on iTunes.

So yes, it is possible that Apple might announce a TV gadget at an event with a guitar on the invitation. But like AAPL Sanity’s Alexander, I wouldn’t count on it.

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[Follow Philip Elmer-DeWitt on Twitter @philiped]

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