Connection or Reflection?

Nearly 50 years ago, Simon and Garfunkel sang about isolation: the loneliness of feeling like a solo island in I Am a Rock. One wonders what the duo might think of Apple’s iPhone ad campaigns, where an underlying message of isolation seems to be up for sale.

The campaign’s two ads, Rock God and Road Trip, depict Siri, the iPhone feature that (in theory) responds intelligently to voice commands. This is an incredible feature, and one Apple could have showcased brilliantly through simple examples of universal needs or experiences, expressed through common or emergency requests to Siri, followed by Siri’s accurate replies. (“Siri, I need to find a plumber immediately!”/”Ok, dialing the nearest 24-hour plumber right now!” “Siri, my daughter is choking, how do I do the Heimlich Maneuver?”/”Here’s a YouTube video that shows you how to do the Heimlich.”)

Instead, the new ads send an unintentional message of self-absorption and isolation. As depicted, Siri acts as an echo chamber, a one-way communication tool, where the phone reflects only the self back to its user. I suppose this should not be a total surprise from a company that blatantly tacks an “i” onto its product names, but it still makes one wonder: Is this really progress?

In “Rock God”, a teenage boy uses his phone to locate a music store and purchase a guitar, take a few lessons to learn several songs, and invite friends to a show. And when he finishes his first show? Rather than engage with the audience or his bandmates, he whips out his phone and expresses his self-satisfaction, telling the phone to call him “Rock God”. Of course, the phone validates his request. Why wouldn’t it? We’ve seen no actual human-to-human interaction at any point in the ad, so what is Apple selling? An informational tool, taken to the height of convenience with its voice-command feature, or something a little more uneasy – an actual friend/companion?

One would think the introduction of another human would mitigate this issue, but with “Road Trip”, the second ad in this series from Apple, the problem deepens. Following a couple on a road trip from a snowy East Coast city to Santa Cruz, California, the ad shows the iPhone’s Siri function used for directions, entertainment listings, star maps, and as a personal assistant. It’s this last role, and the ad’s final shot, that’s most problematic. The couple stands out at a rocky, picturesque beach, both looking out to sea, the girl’s phone in hand. “Remind me to do this again,” she tells the phone. Not speaking to her companion; not telling the phone to remind “us” to do this again; not using the phone to reach out to friends or family and actually share the experiences of the road trip.

Remember the old ’80s telephone ads from AT&T, telling people to use their long-distance service to “reach out and touch someone”? Nowadays, our phones have greater computing power and communications capabilities than the NASA computers that powered the first space missions. And what do we use them for, if we believe what’s depicted in these television spots? Nothing as challenging or imaginative as space travel, it seems: Instead, the mirror function is all that’s needed. And in both ads, most screenshots are from the nose/mouth down, lending an air of anonymity or an “everyman” quality to the pieces. In short, if this isn’t quite you, it’s still close enough.

Of course, I may be being a little hard on Apple. Their products are beloved by millions, both for their outstanding functionality and sleek, creative design. Previous ad campaigns managed to bridge the gap between individual appeal (playing a game on an iPhone) and collective fun (syncing up said game with a bunch of your friends). Maybe this focus on the group, on community, is a relic of the past, a directive from Steve Jobs himself. With his passing, perhaps any remnant of that bridge between individual and collective has been demolished – and Apple is now only here to sell to you, reflect you, and validate you alone.

Because at the end of the day, Apple is banking on creating its most profitable relationship by appealing to what makes you tick, on a scale grander than any company has attempted before. Recent reports show that anxiety, frustration, and a sense of being lost are all common to those who have been separated from their smartphone, whether from it being stolen, broken, or just simply left at home for the day. This is big bucks stuff, this idea of phone as the essential, indispensible partner. Because once your phone is ingrained in your daily routine—once its apps replace the yellow pages, the atlas, the newspaper, the answering machine, the television, the desktop computer—it becomes an extension of you, and that’s a partnership primed for incredible longevity. And if these ads are any indication, Apple would like you to consider the partnership between individual and phone, ignoring its echo chamber faults, as one of the most important—if not the most important—relationship one can establish. If this is progress, it seems awfully cold.

One would be curious to hear an updated version of the Simon and Garfunkel classic, and how it would reflect this new normal, the zeitgeist of a half century later. “An island never cries,” they once sang, underscoring its primary message of sorrow. Without changing one lyric, the modern interpretation of the song now positions itself as a happy tune, a song of fulfillment. (“Hey, a rock feels no pain! An island NEVER cries!”) The listener takes it in, of course, via earbuds plugged into his iPhone, the music audible to him alone. Maybe the cover is performed by the Rock God himself, then uploaded to iTunes, ready to be discovered by countless other islands, each on their own.

“I Am a Rock” copyright Sony/Columbia 

“Rock God” and “Road Trip” copyright Apple

“Reach Out” copyright AT&T 

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