Fantasies of Mobile Media's Utopic Ideal: Connectivity in ESPN & CENTEL Commercials

Curator's Note

A tool I use as a means of analyzing mobile media and distinguishing mobile from other media and cultural forms is the concept of affordances. Here I explore connectivity as it is imagined through two mobile phone service advertisements.

The ESPN "Sports Heaven" commercial implies, based on the man's near constant gaze affixed to his mobile phone while surround by sports activities, that his phone has transformed the urban street-scape into a vast sports-scape. He is deeply and thoroughly connected to his sports universe through his ESPN phone. The commercial's title and voice over narration, positions this kind of connectivity, this connection to vast amounts of sports data, as a utopic ideal.

The CENTEL commercial (circa 1989), ostensibly the first US television commercial advertising personal cellular phone service, presents a very different, yet also utopic, imagination of what mobile connectivity offers. Throughout the husband/father character's journey from the city to the idyllic world of the countryside (complete with pleasure boats and picturesque sunsets), the mobile phone facilitates the family's rendezvous. The wife/mother character guides the man towards her domain (directions at fork in the road); she shares his experience of the unexpected delay (sheep crossing); and he finally summons her upon arrival at the dock. In this vision, connectivity is more social and family-oriented, not to mention laden with connotations of wealth and leisure.

In their visualizations of an ideal, each commercial differs in its gendering of this notion of connectivity. In the CENTEL commercial, the telephone bridges the city/work domain of the man and the remote/leisure/family domain of the woman, a pattern common in cinema since the rescue melodramas of Griffith and Porter. "Sports Heaven", though, offers only two female athletes and one bikini-clad boxing ring girl amid a vast array of male athletes. This not only perpetuates a common and gendered representation of sports in the United States, but also simultaneously genders this vision of connectivity as male. In the former, it's a social connectivity (frequently understood as female); it's family cohesion (and leisure) facilitated by mobile technology. In the latter, it's about data and connection to a particular cultural milieu--decidedly not about people. We have a people-to-people connectivity and a people-to-data connectivity, but both are positioned as a fantasy ideal, bringing to mind reports of increased loneliness in our age of hyper-connectivity. (Oh, yeah, and both CENTEL Cellular and ESPN Mobile are now defunct.)


 These two commercials also suggest the change in attitudes toward cell phone use in the last two decades.  While in the second ad from 1989, cell phones are seen as a way to connect people in outdoor, remote areas or while driving:  in this sense, the cell phone is more functional and empowers both parties to communicate more easily.  In the recent ad, the connection has moved away from interpersonal communication: consuming media and being able to keep out the world (even in a busy city street) is the desired outcome.  

So, while while both commercials offer a utopian, alternative reality, I would suggest that where we've come as a culture is much more isolating.

Thanks for the comment, Jeremy.  I'd agree that, juxtaposed as they are, the two ads point towards a trajectory of increased isolation.  However, there's plenty of studies of mobile phone use that document communication practices such as "micro-coordination", or using a mobile phone (whether text messaging or voice conversation) to make minute adjustments to interpersonal interaction plans (changing time/place of meeting, etc.)  In fact, the CENTEL video suggests this as one of the uses of the mobile phone as the male character updates his family along his journey and then calls for the rendezvous upon arrival. 


Your comment about increased isolation does, however, point to an alternative interpretation of the ESPN commercial.  The 'conventional wisdom' is that ESPN promotes complete and ubiquitous connection and immersion in the world of sports information.  A walk down the street is no longer a painful separation from sports, but rather another opportunity to stay connected to baseball stats, basketball scores, NASCAR updates and the whole sports-scape.  When I've showed this clip in a recent class, though, about 1/3 of my students interpreted the pedestrian of the ESPN clip as curiously ignorant of the amazing displays of sports all around him.  They saw him as isolated from the world of sports, rather than immersed in sports as I'm sure ESPN intended. 

The lack of interaction between the pedestrian and the sporting activities he passes by might also suggest to us to think more deeply about notions of participatory media.  Much recent scholarship has praised the shifting relationship between producers and consumers of media.  Some of this praise has also extended to suggesting that contemporary electronic media, especially in its social media dimension, promotes participation in communities, social groups and activities.  Just as the debates around the "Kony 2012" phenomenon raise questions about the existence of viable political engagement by virtue of clicking a "like" button or sharing a link, versus more physically, intellectually, and socially demanding forms of political activism, the ESPN commercial and its tenuous depection of immersion and/or isolation might also force us to re-evaluate 'participation.'  I don't have an answer here, just food for thought.

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