Is it just impossible to sell a cell phone or what?


Everyone’s favorite Meghan Gallagher sent me the foregoing ad for the new Microsoft Kin, which promises to do for cell phones what Bing did for internet search engines. If you’re wondering, the song is by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, a band I liked without reservation before they sold their best work to a phone commercial and forced me to yet again consider how much of my aesthetic taste is aesthetic taste and how much is just contrary esotericism.* Anywhom, the ad has provoked an extremely small firestorm of controversy, due to allegations by Consumer Reports that it promotes sexting. You remember sexting, right? It’s the totally real thing that teenagers do all the time nowadays, when they’re not cyberbullying or attending rainbow parties. I quote intrepid CR reporter Mike Gikas: “The video…includes a downright creepy sequence in which a young man is shown putting a Kin under his shirt and apparently snapping a picture of one of his naked breasts. The breast is then shown on the phone’s screen, just before the guy apparently sends it to someone.” Needless to say, Gikas did not get away with referring to a man’s bare chest as his “breasts,” or, worse, “the breast,” and comments-section hilarity ensued. Despite the obvious sophistication of its reporter, the CR piece prompted Microsoft to re-edit the spot so as to remove the breaxting, as well as change the Kin’s slogan from “Send a grainy picture of your breasts or breast!” to “We’re all in this together!” Except, of course, those of us who are peering at our phones. Which brings us to Combat! blog’s question of the day: Is it just impossible to sell a cell phone or what?

We’ve remarked on this problem before. Cell phones commercials tend to hang their hopes on one of two nails: we are told either that the phone in question is really technologically awesome (iPhone) or that it works everywhere (not iPhone.) The problem with the first approach is that it tends toward oversell, as when Verizon depicted the Droid as a space-age metallic pod that is fired to the earth from a stealth fighter and scares a horse. It’s hard to really experience awe at a product that I will eventually forget to take out of my pants pocket when I’m doing the laundry, but the second approach is even worse. The problem with the “you can use it everywhere” argument is that encourages us to imagine a life in which we use our cell phones everywhere.

I don’t know about you, but I regard the invention of cellular telephone technology as a terrible thing that happened to me personally. Everyone appears to enjoy talking on the phone more than I do. When I go out to dinner on Saturday night, I don’t do it to listen to 50% of other people’s conversations; I do it to sit quietly with my book, plus make either not enough eye contact or way too much eye contact with the waitress. My judgmental impatience with the cell phone use of others builds up over such sustained periods of time that, when I actually use my own cell phone, I am overcome with guilt. Every time I answer a call in the lobby of the movie theater—or, Christ forbid, in traffic—I become what I claim to hate.

Which brings us back to that irritating phone commercial about crappy people who like a band I like. Hipsters aside, that seems like a really fun basement to be in. There appear to be animal costumes and foam, and everyone is jumping around and cheering—everyone, that is, who is not using his cell phone. The ad for the Kin, which is supposed to be organized around the importance of using your phone to more fully integrate yourself with your friends, winds up presenting the product as antithetical to social behavior. All the actors at that party convincingly appear to be enjoying the experience that the director has fabricated, except for those who are busy documenting that experience and commenting on it for Facebook. The spot doesn’t make me want to buy a better phone. It makes me want to get rid of my phone, quit Facebook, detonate whatever tank of whale brains in electrolyte solution runs Twitter and start a community garden.

For a contemporary culture animated by the belief that consumption can be means of self-expression, the cell phone presents a serious problem. It’s one of the most important products in our post-industrial economy: it encompasses multiple industries, everybody has one, and we all start feeling like we need a better one every two years. That being said, we all hate them. Your cell phone is how your boss asks you to cover a shift on Sunday afternoon. It’s what makes it reasonable for you to check in with your girlfriend on guy’s night. Excessive cell phone use is how you identify the asshole who will later think he can make a deal in a movie about hostages, and how you quickly establish “bad date” in the montage portion of a movie about relationships.* Whether you’re a prematurely old crank who spends entire parties assuring people that he’s not actually mean, a concerned parent, a postmodern anthropologist or an Amish person or into courtesy or whatever, the cell phone is emblematic of everything that is probably wrong with our society. It’s the thing that lets us stop what we are doing, anywhere, anytime, in order to talk about what we might do later. The Microsoft Kin apparently also lets you stop what you’re doing and talk about in on the computer.

Obviously we like cell phones on some level, since everyone who is not currently living at my grandparents’ house has one. It’s a guilty kind of like, though—the same way we like driving in New York. The cell phone is personal. It allows us to take our petty concerns with us everywhere, to shut out the world around us while simultaneously indulging the weird social avarice that led us to sign up for Twitter. The cell phone is there in case somebody wants to call us, even though we hate it when they do, and so we don’t miss any rad basement parties, even though once we get there we’ll probably ignore everybody and send text messages. It is a tool of our own narcissism, and therefore both indispensable and repulsive.  Perhaps we find it so difficult to advertise because it so thoroughly resembles the self: this thing that we cannot do without, that is with us always and therefore we have come to hate.

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  1. Cell-phone free in two thousand and three!

    Actually, though I am currently without a cell phone, I gave mine up in two thousand and eight.

  2. I think your major complaint about cell phones can be boiled down to one thing – they mean everyone always has access to you. That sucks for someone who loves being alone. Any Combat! reader must understand your ambivalence regarding solitude and my guess is most of us feel the same way; good job catering to your audience. This blog focuses a lot on how its writer, and to a lesser extent its readers, differ from the mainstream and I think the desire to often be alone is central to the difference. Finding people who enjoy being by themselves is rare. The shock people express when I say that I have been to restaurants alone for meals is evidence enough that most seek company at all times.

    The other idea you cover – that people are too busy tweeting about their lives to live their lives is more of a consequence of Facebook than any other part of technology. Pictures are wonderful. There’s a reason the first thing the family tries to save when the soldiers show up in The Endless Steppe (or whatever WWII memoir was assigned in your middle school) is their photos; it is nice to have documents of your memories to help prevent those memories from fading. The problem that has arisen is that people are spending more time documenting their nights than enjoying them. This is partially because digital cameras make it easy to do so but mostly because posting pictures from Saturday night on Tuesday allows us to feel nostalgia for the extremely recent past, which is an oddly satisfying yet completely shallow feeling. I guess cell phones help enable this, but they seem like a means rather than an end.

  3. i.m reading this on my phone in the metro. Kind of nice to be able to do that, instead of analyzing the broken sad faces around me

  4. i.m reading this on my phone in the metro. Kind of nice to be able to do that, instead of analyzing the broken sad faces around me. As a bonus, my phone doesn’t show any of those terrible videos you always try to make us watch

  5. If nothing else – the plushies (deviance), the foam (what’s that made from?), breaxting (ha!) – the censors should balk at the sexlessness of this ad.

    There is foam, plushies, and breaxting at this party, and every single person in place to roll these joys slowly among the ridges of their fingerprints is a hairless halfboy. I had no idea the androgyne market was so forceful as to command Daddy Warbucks’ attentions.

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