"More than machinery, we need humanity."
What is a tech company to do when its recent product unveiling risks being forgotten thanks to a competitors even more recent product unveiling? Advertise, of course, and if possible make the ads amusing.
This is the basic logic behind the new batch of “Lazy Phone” ads by Motorola (owned by Google) for the Moto X phone, for what interest and excitement there was in the Moto X (was there any?) seems as though it will be easily displaced by the interest and excitement over Apple’s new iPhone5. The Moto X ads show how well Motorola/Google has learned from Apple’s advertising strategies (think of the humorous “I’m a Mac” ads), namely using an ad campaign to stimulate discussion about the ads themselves and to define the strength of a product through the failings of the competitors’ devices.
In fairness, it should be recognized, that the Lazy Phone ads are actually rather amusing. And on the same level it should also be noted that the old (not actually that old) Apple ads featuring Justin Long and John Hodgman were also funny. Yet along with this it is important to not lose sight of the fact that these were not comedic romps, but advertisements designed to sell a product and a corporate identity, as Theodor Adorno put it (in “The Schema of Mass Culture”):
“The information communicated by mass culture constantly winks at us.” (Adorno, 83)
It’s quite the exaggerated wink in the “Lazy Phone” ads, which could be accused of many things, but not subtlety. The ads feature people (who of course appear to be good looking and reasonably successful) going about their daily lives (giving an intimate massage, at a meeting, attending a school play) when they are broken from the flow of everyday life by their need to interact with their phone. In the “Lazy Phone” ads the part of the phone is not played by a sleek piece of technology but by a long-haired and bearded fellow in unstylish attire who lays around and generally embarrasses the phone’s owner by convulsing upon receiving a text message, complaining about requests, and insisting (rather creepily) that he must be touched. In the “Lazy Phone” ads this slacker phone derails the plans of his distinctly non-slacker owners, and inevitably somebody else in the ad is shown engaging with a sleek and stylish device that they can voice activate, use with a flick of the wrist, exercise greater design choices over, and access silently.
Again, in fairness, the ads are amusing and Motorola/Google seems to have recognized that people might be more willing to talk about a funny ad campaign than just another new phone. And while the brand of the “Lazy Phone” is never expressly mentioned in the ad, it is hardly a stretch to hypothesize that it is meant to be an iPhone (“touch me,” “swipe,” etc…). Yet it is worth remembering that advertising relies on consumers not thinking too seriously about all of the winking that’s going on within these short videos.
First off, these ads portray an interesting state of contemporary affairs insofar as they show a world in which technology has become a constant part of daily life. The phone is there during intimate moments, during work meetings, and during family moments. This constant presence is displayed as unexceptional as opposed to being an example of the way that technology has encroached upon ever moment of many people’s lives. Indeed this invasion winds up recognized in a backhanded way with the “Lazy Phone” ads in which one of the major selling points of the Moto X is the claim that it is less intrusive. The disruptive force of technology is not portrayed in the ads as having anything to do with bringing technology into a given situation but is instead associated with simply having a “lazy phone.”
Thus a second point arises, namely that the faults of a phone (its “laziness”) are a quality inherent in the device. Deriding a device as “lazy” is really just a more clever way of a company advancing the logic of planned obsolescence, especially as the “lazy phone” of the ads is not portrayed as being broken beyond repair (at which point it truly would be obsolete) but simply that it is not as perfectly integrated into a person’s life as the Moto X claims to be. Ascribing the “laziness” to the phone is just another way of giving the phone’s users a pass: could the man in the massage video not have put a song on before beginning the massage? Could the man in the office not have waited until after the meeting to check his e-mail (to say nothing of turning his phone’s vibrate setting to “off”)? Could the couple trying to record their offspring’s performance not have prepared the camera on their phone before the last minute (and again, could they not turn their phone’s vibrate setting to “off”)?
The logic of the ads is that if a person is even remotely perturbed by having to interact with their phone that this is not a failing on their part, and not a case of perhaps expecting too much from technology, but a reason to heave out that “lazy phone” for a newer one. One which by the market-logic of planned obsolescence will itself by portrayed as “lazy” before too long. What is clearly at work in the “Lazy Phone” ads was recognized many years ago by Neil Postman (in Amusing Ourselves to Death) where he wrote:
“What the advertiser needs to know is not what is right about the product but what is wrong about the buyer.” (Postman, 128)
For it is not that the Moto X is a more stupendous piece of technology than the device it casts as “lazy,” but that the Moto X advertisement plays upon consumers’ frustrations with their inability to use the technology that they have at hand. It is not about what is “wrong” with the other phone, it is about what is “wrong about the buyer.” But this bait and switch of taking the problems of a person and portraying them as a result of using “out dated” devices is not strictly related to advertising, it has become part of the ideology of our technological society. And yet (Postman again):
“To be unaware that technology comes equipped with a program for social change, to maintain that technology is neutral, to make the assumption that technology is always a friend to culture is, at this late hour, stupidity plain and simple.” (Postman, 157)
The “Lazy Phone” advertisements are not ultimately about being amusing, they aren’t even really about selling Moto X phones, they’re about a technological “program for social change” in which every inconvenience is cast as a result of a person not having the latest technological toy. While the machines themselves may be “ambivalent” (as Lewis Mumford may have put it), the ethical stance of a device is really just a stand in for the socio-economic agenda of the devices creator.
When the laughter stops we must recognize that phones are not “smart,” they are not obsolete while they are still working, and they are not “lazy” either. What has become lazy is our societal critique of technology, which for the most part passes as “no critique.” Frankly, that’s not very smart.
Or very funny.
Adorno, Theodor. The Culture Industry. Routledge Classics, 2001.
Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death. Penguin, 2006.