Is AT&T Celebrating Smartphone Addiction?
The commercial itself consists of a series of scenes in which the same thing happens in different ways. First, we see a man waiting at a bus stop with iPhone in hand. He stands up as his bus comes, but looking down longingly at his phone, he decides that he’ll just sit back down and wait for the next one. Next, a woman at work is looking at her phone when her boss calls for a meeting, dumbly staring at her home screen as her colleagues rush off to the meeting and leave her alone. Finally, a man stays late after work and just plays with his phone. The tagline is, “AT&T knows you don’t want anything to come between you and your new iPhone.”
AT&T is offering free upgrades to anybody willing to pay higher premiums month after month in order to have a marginally improved phone. Criticisms of the deal itself aside, the commercial focuses on our desire to stay up-to-date in a rapidly changing world, and uses the dynamic of cell phone addiction as a medium through which to convey the message.
A Celebration of Addiction?
The commercial has understandably attracted criticism, with Gizmodo claiming it sums up everything that’s wrong with technology. The most disturbing thing about the ad is that it was evidently intended as a joke, as if we’d respond with, “Ha! Look how that man doesn’t go home and see his family because he wants to sit and look at his phone without the inconvenience of having to move!” In reality, we all see the commercial for what it truly is. At the very least, it’s all-too-familiar, with almost everybody knowing someone who uses his or her phone just a little too much. We’ve become depressingly accustomed to texting over the dinner table, posting on Facebook while we’re supposed to be having a conversation, and mid-work tweeting. There is always a screen in our collective eye-line, and we’re increasingly ignoring real people as a result.
Things only get worse when you start to consider the reality of smartphone addiction. “Nomophobia” (no-mobile phobia) is becoming increasingly common, and surveys reveal that the majority of people feel panicked or desperate when they lose their phones. It’s a quirk of our neurological wiring: we gain “rewards” for social interaction through natural neurotransmitters, and these are the same neurotransmitters implicated in drug or alcohol addictions. In other words, smartphone addiction has the potential to be just as powerful as drug or alcohol addiction.
It might not be a fully-accepted diagnosis yet (it isn’t included in the newest edition of the mental health “bible,” the DSM-V), but as more evidence accumulates on the topic, it seems only a matter of time. As an organization in the industry, it’s frankly unfeasible that AT&T is unaware of this emerging issue. The thing that really annoys people about this commercial is the idea that the minds behind AT&T are fully aware of the problem, but instead of advertising responsibly, they’ve chosen to play on our social fears to increase their profit margins. We expect companies to cynically chase revenue, but ordinarily, they at least pretend that isn’t what they’re doing.
Thankfully, AT&T has attracted plenty of criticism for this approach. This is understandable, particularly if you imagine the very same commercial except with the iPhones replaced by cigarettes, alcohol or even an addictive drug. The man waiting by the bus stop doesn’t get on because he just has to have another cigarette, the woman misses her meeting because she’s busy snorting a line of crushed-up OxyContin from her desk, and the worker doesn’t return to his family because he’s savoring his fifth glass of bourbon. Even for the legal drugs, there would be pure outrage from all corners of society. Yet somehow, when AT&T does the same thing with another addiction, it’s supposed to be “funny.”