Walked down to Times Square with Ari B. last weekend. We stood on the red lighted steps that give you a theatregoer’s view on the light show Times Square’s always been, though it’s “friendlier” now, and far brighter – supersized. One ad, repeating on one of the biggest boards, caught our attention; I’d been going on about my hobby horse, and Ari’s been following this blog, and we agreed, I think, that the ad proved my point, or at least substantiated it. It's the new Microsoft Windows Phone 7 ad:
The first third of the spot shows us typical modern consumer-type folks missing out on physically and aesthetically pleasurable and meaningful life-experiences (urban life, travel, the beach, shower, jogging, massage, coffee, family, sex, exercise, snorkeling) because we’re (too) absorbed in our hand-held devices. After each situation, the snarky refrain: “Really?” (The unspoken answer: “Not! Your (over)use of this medium is blocking your access to reality.") The ad’s second third turns the mode to slapstick when this absorption absurdly interrupts what may be greatest pleasure of all: taking a leak. (It also interrupts the buildup of the Peer Gynt suite, which, if this is an allusion to M, is pretty darn crafty: This is a compulsion, you can’t help yourself.) From here on it’s a loss not directly of pleasure, but of (social) dignity, somewhat in the old “BO” ad mode: we make fools of ourselves at the opera, at our wedding, in bed, at work (as a surgeon: high stakes, high pathos, big laffs), at the dinner table, as a Dad at the Little League game… and the dénouement? – A sweet blonde girl toddler in PJs, facing the camera in some perplexity, her oblivious well-heeled professional mom texting out of focus on the sofa behind, and the baby – get this – the poor mom-deprived past-bedtime baby is holding a sippy cup! Way to get at every working mom’s ambivalent anxiety about not being able to breastfeed/spend time with her children because she’s working! Way, also, to reiterate J.H. Campe’s equation of media with the pacifier, immediacy (“Be Here Now”) with The Breast… So QED. But that’s not all. Here comes my paradox again (that nostalgia seeks fulfillment in simulacra of experience produced by the very media perceived to be blocking access to it), except a bit in reverse: here, a variant of the media-object blamed for effecting distance is touted with the special ability to close it.
Over the sippy-cup sequence (moment of greatest pathos) is where the voice-over comes in: “It’s time for a phone… to save us from our phones.” Ooh, a paradox… So what’s the argument? “New Windows phone: designed to get you in… and out... and back to life.” Cut to romantic dinner for two. OK, first off, is this “in and out” thing a double entendre? Probably, but that can’t be the whole story. “In and out” of what, then? – One’s email, the internet, texting, and so on, is what I imagine is meant; in other words, all those things all those people were losing life to in the rest of the ad. So is the argument that (and am I expected to believe that) the special virtue of this new product is that it will allow me to execute all those personal-device activities that I am obsessively compelled to perform in say, half the time, leaving 50% more time for non-mediated activities such as sleeping with my wife or nursing my baby? Not only is this obviously bunk, it’s a self-contradiction: if our engagement with these devices is as irrational (obsessive-compulsive) as the ad suggests (and as it so clearly is), then the rational time-management argument is beside the point: we don’t text all the time because objectively we need to, we do it because there’s something about the medium that makes us want to. (Ask your average high-school student if she’d spend less time texting if texting went faster.) The interaction is itself a pleasure (though an ambivalent one); what we have in this ad is an array of conventional luxury pleasures set up rhetorically against one that the spot is attempting to sell. The interesting added factor is guilt. (You are ignoring your baby! Your wife! Your family! Your life!) A whole book could be written on guilt as a factor in marketing – maybe one has. But what’s more interesting than the simple presence of guilt as a factor is how the ad employs guilt so to speak dialectically: by letting us laugh at our own captivity to our devices (and also laugh socially: we’re all doing this, and we all can laugh at it, so really it’s not so embarrassing), it grants us permission to continue essentially as before; or as Siegfried Kracauer put it regarding certain cinematic “products of directorial artistry produced for the intellectual bourgeoisie”: “In the end, the audiences for such works read a radical magazine and pursue their bourgeois profession with a bad conscience, in order to have a good conscience” (“Kino 1928”). How then does the sell work? The product the ad allows us to identify with the feeling of catharsis and moral relief produced by its aesthetic solution of the problem is thus affectively tagged as a solution to a problem identified with “other” phones. – Really?
The whole strategy reminds me of the one used in the “Dove Evolution” ad:
about which I wrote about a year ago on one of Dove’s Facebook discussion pages, “What do you think of Dove advertising,”
on which the suckered cluelessness of people’s enthusiasm for the ad
really bothered me:
The Evolution video is a good video, and it makes a good point, and I'd certainly (maybe) recommend showing it to young girls and boys, but the "fan" comments all show that Dove is succeeding perfectly in its sales pitch: WE are the Ben & Jerry's of cosmetics; OUR brand is not appealing to the insecurities & vulnerabilities that others are. But as a matter of fact: it is – and then some; in fact, there's a special danger, I think, in the way Dove masks its self-interest in the form of a public-service announcement with which it's difficult to disagree. Not to mention that a) everyone knows this already, which adds the pleasant thrill of feeling confirmed in one's morally superior knowledge and b) "our" perception of beauty has ALWAYS been "distorted": perceptions of beauty have always been constructs, and "natural" is as much a construction as any (it dates in this form to the mid-18th century, thank you Rousseau).
Not to mention that the ad allows you to enjoy BOTH varieties of beauty, while also permitting you to assume the additionally titillating position of moral censor.
& not to mention also that in this case Dove's implicit promise is STILL that their products will make women more beautiful than they are naturally (i.e. without cosmetics). Which means that in fact they're STILL appealing to the same fears and insecurities that they would like to appear to be declaring obsolete.
Same tactic, no?