Mixed Signals: Fast Phones Expose Your Inner Ugly

Mixed Signals is Erin Straza’s weekly musing about marketing miscellany in advertising, branding, and messaging.

Advertising isn’t all that complicated. Simply show the greatness of having product X as compared to the awfulness of not having product X, and you’ve demonstrated just cause for a purchase.

A recent campaign by AT&T uses this sort of comparison in its TV spots (additional spots linked below):

AT&T uses this comparison technique to demonstrate how its speedy phones deliver information faster than competing brands. It compares the “Haves” with the “Have Nots”, just as other successful messages do. Initially, the situations, the commentary, and the facial expressions in the ad made me laugh. But the more I saw them, I realized the overly sarcastic delivery interferes with the basic formula.

The use of sarcasm in advertising is common. The humor of mocking and exaggerating real-life situations can be quite effective in demonstrating a key selling point. I’m sure that’s what AT&T was shooting for.

This is why: Typically the “Haves” are the ones we are supposed to aspire to. They have the product, and whoever doesn’t have it, wants it. But in this campaign, the “Haves” aren’t so nice to be around. I find myself disassociating from the “Haves” because their freaky fast phones bring out the ugly in them. They may have the product, but I’m not sure I want to aspire to their status.

Is this what happens when you buy an AT&T phone? You become mean and arrogant? Maybe being the first to know everything gives you an edge over others, and that edge goes straight to your head, causing you to belittle those around you. With your superior knowledge, you can’t help but sneer at the sad attempts of the “Have Nots” to keep up with you.

The message exposes something that isn’t much of a selling point for these phones. Our need to know more than everyone else can override our social graces. Sometimes having the latest and greatest the market has to offer plays right into our pride, and we become the worst versions of ourselves.

From that perspective, these TV spots are a bit painful to watch. I see way too much of myself in the “Haves”. And even when I haven’t verbalized my disdain toward the “Have Nots” who know less than me, it’s still there inside my heart, making all sorts of noise as it darkens me with pride.

This need for knowledge is exactly what led Adam and Eve to eat from a certain tree of the same name. The knowledge they gained wasn’t quite what they had expected. And I believe the same could be said about what’s gained from having the fastest phone. The knowledge gained just may have a hidden cost that we won’t surface until after we’ve consumed it. By then, it may be too late because your inner ugly may be out for the world to see.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nzTy9_xS1yA

About Erin Straza

Erin Straza (Associate Editor) is a freelance writer, editor, and marketing communications consultant, helping organizations tell their stories in authentic and compelling ways. After a stint in corporate marketing while earning her MBA, Erin taught marketing communications at Illinois Wesleyan and Illinois State. She is crafting her first book, writing from the Illinois flatlands where she lives with her husband, Mike. Find more from Erin at her blog Filling My Patch of Sky and on Twitter @ErinStraza.
E-mail: erin [at] FillingMyPatchOfSky [dot] com
Blog: Filling My Patch of Sky
Twitter: @ErinStraza

  • Geoffrey R.

    Erin,

    You bring up an excellent point. And I feel like it’s not just AT&T, like I’ve seen other commercials in which possession of the product advertised makes people seem unpleasant. Why do you suppose that is? Are ad execs clueless, or just so anxious for a quick laugh that they’ll ignore the broader implications of presenting the “haves” as jerks? Or is all this irony lost on execs and audiences alike: Do people, in fact, not see that the “haves” in the commercials are in fact jerks? I’m curious as to whether you (or others more knowledgeable about marketing) have any thoughts on the matter.

  • Notshawn Noreally

    i think the real truth is that, deep down on a subconscious level, lots of people WANT the power to be jerks…they’ve been belittled all their lives, and they no longer want to be the ones being belittled, they want to be the clever jerks with the power to protect themselves not only from ignorance, but from the need to care about ignorance. And they want to show everyone else they’ve risen from the ranks of the mockable, and in our competition-driven society, the strongest way to do that is to become what they hated, because by becoming it, they consume its power and take back their own. You can either be a cow floating down the river, or a piranha, and nobody wants to be the cow. It simultaneously plays on their insecurities and their desire for control.
    AT&T are actually selling the right to be jerks, an absolution for entitlement in the form of a phone. It’s not just that Adam and Eve want to eat and know; in today’s society, what they really want is to be able to show up God.

  • http://www.FillingMyPatchOfSky.com Erin

    Geoffrey > I agree—there are several products using this strategy right now, not just AT&T. I think marketing strategists assume that warm fuzzies gained from the humor will override the negative message. How many viewers truly look at the user of the product in the TV spot and try to figure out if that’s the sort of person they would want to emulate?

    Notshawn Noreally > Interesting take on this; the TV spots allow us to live vicariously through these ugly-acting people. Your last line caught in my chest—I am saddened, because I think you are right. These ads tap into our desire to know it all, to be omniscient, to be like God.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts here. Good discussion.

  • Daniel

    Great article. Yes, I think people DO want the power to be jerks, secretly or otherwise. Just seeing all the snark that passes for wit on the Internet, and it’s obvious that a huge number of people like the power to belittle others.

    I think it’s part of our sinful nature, to turn power to do good into power to say “I’m better than you!”


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X