Here in the UK, mobile networks are being advertised in a way that makes my skin crawl.
If you’re looking for evidence of a hypothetical ‘smartphone dystopia’, look no further than every time Martin Freeman pops up on your TV screen pushing Vodafone’s digital wares. While not all network ads are this bad (Giffgaff is taking a completely different approach, for example), I find the current campaigns of EE, Vodafone and Three downright obnoxious.
Let’s look at some examples.
Of the three, Kevin Bacon’s EE ads are perhaps the least potentially harmful (albeit still cringeworthy). In this long-running series, actor Kevin Bacon encourages you to choose EE because you can consume more pointless digital stuff all the time and anywhere you want. ‘Consume more’ is a key message in most advertising, of course, but especially in mobile advertising, where – with a few exceptions – the products are framed almost exclusively as consumption platforms. EE’s ads are typical in that they try to convey a sense of breezy excitement in new technology, that by participating you’re joining something big.
EE actually stands for ‘Everything Everywhere’. If that’s not a direct command to consume I don’t know what is.
Vodafone’s current TV advertising campaign in the UK features actor Martin Freeman. Many of the earlier ads weren’t so bad – some were even a little charming. We saw the character’s girlfriend presenting him with a new phone, and another in which he was getting frustrated trying to ‘break up’ with his old network (but guess what, Vodafone has a cooling-off period!).
But I find the most recent Vodafone ad highly disturbing. Martin Freeman is on a commuter train packed with passengers watching videos on their phones. He tries to strike up conversations but is ignored; the expressions of those jacked in to the network become increasingly aggressive and hostile as Freeman’s character becomes more and more agitated. He soon discovers that everyone is watching the same show. Finally, he yells ‘What is wrong with you people?’ before turning away and cringing, as if realising that he is the only one not participating in this shared experience, facilitated – the implication goes – by Vodafone.
But here’s the thing: this ad fails to communicate any of the positive aspects of smartphone use, instead focusing on the negative sides. The Vodafone users are depicted as mindless drones whose attention has been stolen by the passive consumption of content. None of them looks happy or calm. Most look distracted at best, or angry at worst. The attention-robbing nature of smartphones is emphasised by the fact that none of these people seem physically capable of tearing themselves away from the glowing rectangles in their hands. They look exactly like the junkies they are.
This ad plays the peer pressure card big time: you are the only one not consuming this presumably gripping content, the ad’s message clearly says. Resistance is futile. It concludes with their cute little tagline, ‘The future is exciting’, but I don’t think this ad conveys any excitement whatsoever – only numb conformity.
I’ve left the worst until last. Three UK has recently launched a campaign called #PhonesAreGood. This campaign is a direct attack against the current and growing humane technology counterculture.
The first ad (presumably of many) begins with a woman scrolling through headlines such as ‘Phones are bad’, ‘They’ll end humanity’, and ‘Life was better before phones’. She looks shocked and worried… but then her phone is sucked into a wormhole and zapped back through time so that Three can prove that phones would have solved all of humanity’s problems throughout history.
We see the Titanic saved by a data readout on the smartphone’s display (‘Phones 1, haters 0’, apparently), Eve ignoring the serpent’s temptation in the Garden of Eden because she’s scrolling through pictures of Adam on Instagram, Henry VIII using Tinder (‘Phones save wives’), and a starving band of Neanderthals ordering a pizza with a tap. Moses divides the Red Sea while a follower videos it.
Finally, the hashtag #PhonesAreGod appears for a split second before changing to #PhonesAreGood.
I find this advert troubling on several levels. Most importantly, it dismisses the growing mental health concerns regarding smartphones and social media in the most flippant manner possible. I get it – it’s supposed to be funny and cute, but this will only serve to make people who struggle with this stuff wonder if they’re the ones at fault, not the technology, when in fact the opposite is true.
You wouldn’t see an advert in 2018 glibly making fun of depression or anxiety, so why is this considered ok?
The ad presents a world in which human agency and ingenuity are worthless. Why think or do anything, Three says, when a smartphone can solve all your problems with a tap? This is even worse than the message of mindless consumption promoted by EE and Vodafone, because in Three’s world human beings are relegated to mere smartphone operators, slaves to the machine god. And while adults will have the necessary perspective to avoid taking that message literally, children and teenagers will be watching this. Is this a message we want to implant in young minds – that your intellect and creativity don’t matter?
On a deeper level, it’s even possible to argue that this message is an attack against humanity itself. Humans are messy and imperfect. We fail and we die – but these are priceless aspects of the human condition, things that make us who we are. Technology cannot eliminate failure or death. Would we want it to? And if it did, would we even be human any more? I can’t help but think a war is starting to be fought against our very humanity, and perhaps we’re seeing the first hints of it.
As the anti-Entanglement pushback gathers pace, mobile network ads are becoming more aggressive in their drive to further entangle and enslave us in the world of passive digital consumption. They use the age-old advertising tactics of peer pressure, technodazzle and the lolz to get us to spend ever-increasing amounts of money on stuff that we do not need (and, in most cases, had no idea we even wanted until it was shoved in front of our faces by Kevin Bacon). So far, so capitalism I guess – except that no object in the history of the world has the power to capture and mould attention like the smartphone.
The tactics being used in 2018 take things much, much further. They push an agenda of relentless, ever-increasing, unquestioning consumption
Years ago, when I worked for Carphone Warehouse, I came to believe that we were using unethical tactics to sell smartphones. Back in 2011–12, most of our customers did not want them; they wanted something inexpensive, familiar, and simple to use that did the basics (calls, text, and photos in those days). But smartphones were more profitable for us, and so we pushed our digital drugs, convincing people that they wanted email and Facebook in their pocket even if they did not need these things. During the ‘Walk Out Working’ period we even signed people up for new Google accounts during phone setup without taking the time to explain what consequences this would have for the rest of their lives. I didn’t know then what I know now, of course, but I look back on those years with shame.
The tactics being used in 2018 take things much, much further. They push an agenda of relentless, ever-increasing, unquestioning consumption. They teach us to stop thinking for ourselves because the machines know best. They want us to spend more and more on crap we do not need, solving problems that don’t exist. And most of all, they whisper in our ear that resistance is futile – that this is just the way the world is now, so get with the programme.
It’s time to resist.