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Do You Have to Be an Idiot to Buy a New Phone Plan? Or Just Look Like One on TV?
March 16, 2011  | By David Bianculli

One's an isolated event, two's a pattern, three's a crowd, and more than that's a definite trend. So here's a new TV trend: In commercials for new phones and phone plans, the people using them tend to be insufferable idiots. So is that the target audience? Or just the unavoidable conclusion?...


The one that first caught my eye, for Sprint's "unlimited service" plan, featured an insensitive doctor whose bedside manner was high-tech, and highly abrasive.

His patient, a football player with his right knee bandaged and iced, has just received the bad news that he's finished for the rest of the season. The doctor just informed him... by email.

When the athlete reacts with disbelief, the doctor holds out his phone to play a video. "Your knee's totally shattered," he says. "See how hard that guy hit you?"

And when the athlete moans and says he doesn't want to see it, the doctor replies soothingly, "Relax. It's not costing me any extra."

The doctor appeared later, in another Sprint commercial, sending photos and texts that made fun of a neighbor's Christmas lights display. So he wasn't only a jerk in one ad -- he was a repeat offender. And, as it quickly turned out, he wasn't alone.


Another Sprint ad featured a couple at a restaurant table, each holding their respective mobile devices. The young woman looks up, and asks in disbelief, "I just got a text from you that you're breaking up with me?"

Yes, she did. And the commercial goes on from there.

A newer Sprint ad echoes a similar why-talk-when-we-can-"connect" theme, showing two people, in immediate proximity, communicating by electronic rather than natural means. One character -- the fool -- thinks it's natural. The other -- the recipient -- thinks it's ridiculous. So what are we viewers supposed to think? If we identify with the recipient, why buy the plan?


Here are the specifics: Two young men, Lyle and Rick, at a restaurant table barely big enough to hold their laptops.

Lyle, the ad soon reveals, has called a high-tech, wired-in business meeting, even though Lyle and Rick are the only employees of the two-man business.

Rick thinks Lyle is a jerk for emailing and texting and tweeting him when he's right in front of him -- and so do we.

But it doesn't cost any extra, so why not add up the minutes, and jam up the bandwidth?


Yet another Sprint ad moves the conflict from a restaurant to a family dinner table (shown at the top of this column), where mom, dad, kids and the grandparents are seated in the dining room.

It looks, at first, like a cozy, old-fashioned dinner, but mom is delivering some bad news to the kids -- that the grandparents are moving in, and taking one of their rooms.

And she's delivering the news by texting and tweeting it. When her daughter objects, she expresses sympathy. "Oh, honey," she says -- then offers to teach her how to tweet.

Trick or tweet? What kind of anti-social behavior is being sold here?

And it's not fair, or accurate, to blame it all on an ill-conceived ad campaign by Sprint. Rivals in the phone-plan business have come up with the same intentionally annoying sales pitch.


One ad for the AT&T Network has a husband working late at the office when his wife calls, asking if he remembered to make dinner reservations for their anniversary.

Of course he did, he replies, lying -- and while talking to her, and saying (lying again) that he's already on the way, he uses the multi-use capability of his phone to search the web, find a restaurant and book directions.

Hey, comsumers: If you're the kind of jerk who forgets your wedding anniversary, then this phone, and this plan, is for you!


Or how about the ad, also from AT&T, that has a guy sitting alone at a diner, chatting to a friend on the phone and betting some money on the year some pop-culture event took place. While he's talking, he's looking it up on the web -- and when he realizes he's wrong, he claims that the restaurant's on fire, and hangs up.

But what's worse is that, the whole time he's doing that, a waitress is standing there, waiting to take his order, and being completely ignored.

Hey, rude young bastards -- this is the phone plan for you!


If you identify with the characters in these ads, you'd have to be crazy.

And that's the only reasonable explanation for the ads by yet another phone carrier -- for the Virgin Android -- which use as their spokesperson a crazy stalker woman, hiding in a tree outside the home of a young man she's just dated for the first time.

Crouched in the tree, she surfs the web to see whether he's updated his Facebook status or tweeted about her, while she goes on and on with a fervor that makes her more certifiable than credible. And if there's any doubt as to her mental stability, the tag line for the ad literally spells it out:


"Go Crazy on Android."

So that's it. These ads are making it fairly clear, with the message they're delivering to viewers. This, pretty much, is what they're saying:

"You'd have to be nuts to buy one of our phones, or into our phone plan.

"So if you are, babe, this one's for you..."




Osgood said:

All too many commercial copywriters, it seems, think they're writing for "Saturday Night Live." Problem is, the only chance they ever would have of being hired is if Jean Doumanian would return.

[Ouch. That's a 30-year-old reference (to the woman who temporarily produced SNL after Lorne Michaels left after season five, only to return and run it after Jean left), but it still works. - DB]

Comment posted on March 16, 2011 12:12 PM

Neil said:

A technical correction first: (1) in the graph that begins with the misspelled "Hey, comsumers", it should follow with "if you're the kind of jerk that FORGETS his wedding anniversary..." Otherwise it doesn't make sense.

More importantly, I think you're missing the bigger story. Watch MSNBC some evening, and you'll also see ads for Sprint. But these ads are shot in black & white and feature Sprint's CEO (Dan Hesse, IIRC) discussing the advantages of their plans and/or service quality over the competition. My guess is I'd also see that series of ads on CNN, CNBC, maybe Fox News (but on that I wouldn't bet the rent). And probably on such Sunday morning fare as Meet the Press or Face the Nation.

What I'm seeing here is a segmenting of the message for the "smart" audience and the "dumb" audience. The demos who watch the aforementioned news and information programs are presumed to be smart enough to warrant having a somewhat intelligent presentation of Sprint's message targeted to them. But the demos who sit at the idiot box in the evening, consuming the network dreck, or even worse the "reality" dreck on the cable channels, get the dumbed down message. Hell, they're too stupid to even realize they're being insulted.

Having said that, I'm now going to start paying closer attention to how the other cellphone carriers differentiate their messages for different audience demos in their ad buys. If nothing else, this might make an interesting project for one of your students, or maybe even an entire TV class.

[Thanks for the editing correction, which I've made. As for the slippery slope I've just started sliding down, well, wheeeeeeeeeeeeee! Let's all ride. Report back on what you find, and especially where you find it. - DB]

Comment posted on March 16, 2011 2:27 PM

Carina said:

I have to disagree with you, at least on the new Sprint commercials. I find them absolutely hilarious. Then again, I'm the target market. I'm young enough to know that when that mom asks her teenage daughter if she can help her "compose a Tweet" it's downright funny. The ads play slyly on both sides of the cellular divide and acknowledge that sometimes, even those of us devoted to our smart phones, can act like jerks. If we're not the self-absorbed smartphone user, we certainly all think we know one.

Now, I need to go compose a Tweet.

[Carina -- It was tweet of you to respond, even with a slight disagreement. But I'm not even sure we disagree. I find all these commercials amusing. I just don't think they'd make me buy into one of their phone plans. Notice, though, that none of the ads shows a tech-obsessed phone user texting while driving. Same idea -- using phones too often, in improper contexts, simply because you can do it without added charges -- but with a dangerous, illegal subtext. -- DB]

Comment posted on March 16, 2011 6:53 PM

Davey said:

I think some of these ads are actually funny, and about as creative as ads get -- ie, not very.

Surprised that you choose these ads as examples of idiot ad characters. Idiots are the stock in trade of advertising, from the idiot wifey rhapsodizing because she discovered some crap-in-a-box dinner to her idiot hubby and vile offspring joining in the sub-primate celebration.

Or the braindead bimbos that think putting noxious chemicals on their hair makes them "worth it".

Or the vacant suits that think driving a gas guzzling pseudo-military pile of junk makes them real men.


You'd have been better off noting the one or two examples of ads not aimed at idiots.

[Hmm. Slippery slope indeed. Good point... - DB]

Comment posted on March 16, 2011 7:09 PM

Erin said:

Your argument, essentially, is that these ads are trying to appeal to the jerks out there. The syllogism you seem to present is:
Major Premise: Idiots use smartphone X.
Minor Premise: I, the consumer, am an idiot.
Conclusion: Therefore, I, the idiot consumer, need to get smartphone X.

What I'd like to point out is how this ad series is akin to the "for Dummies" books. A few years ago, a few really smart communication theorists did some studies on why people bought "for Dummies" books, when the title of the book essentially called them dumb. What they found is that the readers of the books did NOT consider themselves Dummies; instead, they considered themselves much smarter than Dummies. But if a book could explain a complicated topic so that even a dummy could understand the topic, then the reader (who was not THAT dumb) could most assuredly understand the topic.

So, I'd like to propose an alternative reading of those ads:
Major Premise: Idiots can use smartphone X.
Minor Premise: I (the consumer) am NOT an idiot.
Conclusion: Therefore, I'd be able to use the smartphone more efficiently, effectively, and appropriately than those idiots in the commercial.

I could counter by saying "Major Premise: Idiots don't know what syllogism means," but I won't. Therefore, I accept your point. -- DB]

Comment posted on March 20, 2011 6:56 PM

ericg said:

Great topic, great examples.

I am partial to the obnoxious doctor and the season-ended injured football player. Masterworks of acting by the two of them, and I still laugh after seeing it dozens of times.

I'm on board with Erin; that is, mass communications, by nature, gravitate towards the simplest messages...i.e. often, the most moronic.

Annoying cell phone listeners and privileged Orange County Housewives allow us many moments of moral superiority, ("I am better than those idiots. Thank God. How did they get on TV??")

Superior, confident people can yes, benefit from the new technology, but at a more basic level, people that feel good about themselves spend money, so the commercials are profitable.

These spots, while meant to make us laugh, serve advertising's most basic (subconscious) goals; sell while the buyer is unaware there's a sales pitch.

"Oh. No. Your knee is totally shattered...did you see how hard that guy hit you??"....


[Nice to have one of our writers write in. Have to put this one in pile number five... so thanks. -- DB]

Comment posted on March 21, 2011 10:21 AM
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