In the spirit of taking a break over the holidays, this is more of a fun post with some very rough thoughts (though inspired by some of my prior work on paying attention to and critiquing narratives and futures portrayed by tech advertising). The basic version is that the Cricket Wireless 2018 Holiday Ad, Four the Holidays (made by ad company Psyop), portrays a narrative that makes a slight critique of an always-connected world and suggests that physical face-to-face interaction is a more enjoyable experience for friends than digital sharing. While perhaps a over-simplistic critique of mobile technology use, the twin messages of “buy a wireless phone plan to connect with friends” and “try to disconnect to spend time with friends” highlight important tensions and contradictions present in everyday digital life.
But let’s look at the ad in a little more detail!
Last month, while streaming Canadian curling matches (it’s more fun than you might think, case in point, I’ve blogged about the sport’s own controversy with broom technology) there was a short Cricket ad playing with a holiday jingle. And I’m generally inclined to pay attention to an ad with a good jingle. Looking it up online brought up a 3 minute long short film version expanding upon the 15 second commercial (embedded above), which I’ll describe and analyze below.
It starts with Cricket’s animated characters Ramon (the green blob with hair), Dusty (the orange fuzzy ball), Chip (the blue square), and Rose (the green oblong shape) on a Hollywood set, “filming” the aforementioned commercial, singing their jingle:
The four, the merrier! Cricket keeps us share-ier!
Four lines of unlimited data, for a hundred bucks a month!
After their shoot is over, Dusty wants the group to watch fireworks from the Cricket water tower (which is really the Warner Brothers Studio water tower, though maybe we should call it Chekov’s water tower in this instance) on New Year’s Eve. Alas, the crew has other plans, and everyone flies to their holiday destinations: Ramon to Mexico, Dusty to Canada, Chip to New York, and Rose to Aspen.
The video then shows each character enjoying the holidays in their respective locations with their smartphones. Ramon uses his phone to take pictures of food shared on a family table; Rose uses hers to take selfies on a ski lift.
The first hint that there might be a message critiquing an always-connected world is when the ad shows Dusty in a snowed-in, remote Canadian cabin. Presumably this tells us that he gets a cell signal up there, but in this scene, he is not using his phone. Rather, he’s making cookies with his two (human) nieces (not sure how that works, but I’ll suspend my disbelief), highlighting a face-to-face familial interaction using a traditional holiday group activity.
The second hint that something might not be quite right is the dutch angel establishing shot of New York City in the next scene. The non-horizontal horizon line (which also evokes the off-balance establishing shot of New York from an Avengers: Infinity War trailer) visually puts the scene off balance. But the moment quickly passes, as we see Chip on the streets of New York taking instagram selfies.
Then comes a rapid montage of photos and smiling selfies that the group is sending and sharing with each other, in a sort of digital self-presentation utopia. But as the short film has been hinting at, this utopia is not reflective of the characters’ lived experience.
The video cuts to Dusty, skating alone on a frozen pond, successfully completing a trick, but then realizes that he has no one to share the moment with. He then sings “The four the merrier, Cricket keeps us share-ier” in a minor key as re-envisions clouds in the sky as the form of the four friends. The minor key and Dusty’s singing show skepticism in the lyrics’ claim that being share-ier is indeed merrier.
The minor key continues, as Ramon sings while envisioning a set of holiday lights as the four friends, and Rose sees a department store window display as the four friends. Chip attends a party where the Cricket commercial (from the start of the video) airs on a TV, but is still lonely. Chip then hails a cab, dramatically stating in a deep voice “Take me home.”
In the last scene, Chip sits atop the Cricket Water Tower (or, Chekov’s Water Tower returns!) at 11:57pm on New Year’s Eve, staring alone at his phone, discontent. This is the clearest signal about the lack of fulfillment he finds from his phone, and by extension, the digitally mediated connection with his friends.
Immediately this is juxtaposed with Ramon singing with his guitar from the other side of the water tower, still in the minor key. Chip hears him and immediately becomes happier, and the music shifts to a major key as Rose and Dusty enter as the tempo picks up, and the drums and orchestra of instruments join in. And the commercial ends with the four of them watching New Year’s fireworks together. It’s worth noting the lyrics at the end:
Ramon: The four the merrier…
Chip [spoken]: Ramon?! You’re here!
Rose: There’s something in the air-ier
All: That helps us connect, all the season through. The four, the merrier
Dusty: One’s a little harrier (So hairy!)
All: The holidays are better, the holidays are better, the holidays are better with your crew.
Nothing here is explicitly about Cricket wireless, or the value of being digitally connected. It’s also worth noting that the phone that Chip was previously staring at is nowhere to be found after he sees Ramon. There is some ambiguous use of the word “connect,” which could refer to both a face-to-face interaction or a digitally mediated one, but the tone of the scene and emotional storyline bringing the four friends physically together seems to suggest that connect refers to the value of face-to-face interaction.
So what might this all mean (beyond the fact that I’ve watched this commercial too many times and have the music stuck in my head)? Perhaps the larger and more important point is that the commercial/short film is emblematic of a series of tensions around connection and disconnection in today’s society. Being digitally connected is seen as a positive that allows for greater opportunity (and greater work output), but at the same time discontent is reflected in culture and media, ranging from articles on tech addiction, to guides on grayscaling iPhones to combat color stimulation, to disconnection camps. There’s also a moralizing force behind these tensions: to be a good employee/student/friend/family member/etc, we are told that we must be digitally connected and always-on, but at the same time, we are told that we must also be dis-connected or interact face-to-face in order to be good subjects.
In many ways, the tensions expressed in this video — an advertisement for a wireless provider trying to encourage customers to sign up for their wireless plans, while presenting a story highlighting the need to digitally disconnect — parallels the tensions that Ellie Harmon and Melissa Mazmanian find in their analysis of media discourse of smartphones: that there is both a push for individuals to integrate the smartphone into everyday life, and to dis-integrate the smartphone from everyday life. What is fascinating to me here is that this video from Cricket exhibits both of those ideas at the same time. As Harmon and Mazmanian write,
The stories that circulate about the smartphone in American culture matter. They matter for how individuals experience the device, the ways that designers envision future technologies, and the ways that researchers frame their questions.
While Four the Holidays doesn’t tell the most complex or nuanced story about connectivity and smartphone use, the narrative that Cricket and Psyop created veers away from a utopian imagining of the world with tech, and instead begins to reflect some of the inherent tensions and contradictions of smartphone use and mobile connectivity that are experienced as a part of everyday life.