Ad Report Card: Wireless Free Thinking

The great promise of the wireless future, as envisioned by advertisers, comes down to one word: freedom. Freedom is kind of a big deal to Americans, so it’s easy to see what’s attractive about this pitch. It also helps explains how hopelessly overwrought are the sales pitches that wireless vendors make. Verizon, for instance, uses a silly, folkish theme song with the hook “People everywhere just want to be free” as a backdrop against which various good-looking young people participate in such liberating experiences as communicating with each other at a concert, wirelessly. Cingular—as many people reminded me after last week’s column—includes in one of its ads an audio snippet of Martin Luther King Jr. saying, “Free at last, free at last.” (Oddly out of step with all this is an AT&T Wireless campaign in which a shepherd and his flock recur; “People everywhere just want to be sheep?”) Keep all of this in mind as you consider a recent ad from Hewlett Packard, which you can view here.

The Ad: The spot begins as a sort of candid interview with a woman identified as Susie Wee of HP Labs. She tells us: “My dream is to develop technology that’ll change the way people live.” The scene shifts to a snowy mountain setting, where a couple of guys all tricked out in advanced hiking gear plod through the icy winds. Susie Wee’s voiceover continues: “At HP, I’m working on video-streaming research that’ll bring video and audio to people anywhere and on any device.” Here the hikers pause, and one produces a gizmo. He presses the screen, and as the men stand there with clumps of ice stuck to their faces, they watch a scene from a soap opera. “We’ll get there,” says Susie Wee, with an engaging smile. “Just one step at a time.” On the mountain, the hikers are crying along with the soap character who has learned that he’s not really the father of etc., etc. Close on the HP logo and the word “Invent.”

Freedom? I distinctly remember my reaction to this ad the first time I saw it: “What a nightmare,” I said aloud. I guess I’m biased on this front, because I’m not a user of the most popular wireless technology, the cell phone. (I always suspect people who ask me for a wireless number could only want such a thing so that they’ll always be able to cancel on me on the last possible second.) That said, can anyone deny that this ad, while posturing as a vision of a magical future, is a fine example of how wirelessness does at least as much to limit personal “freedom” as enhance it? Is the ability to watch television from a mountaintop something that might “change the way people live” for the better? Please!

I know, the ad is tongue-in-cheek, and I’m being a bit humorless about it. (So please don’t bother pointing that out to me.) And it isn’t a terrible spot, I guess, if the idea is simply to make the case that Hewlett Packard is hard at work inventing our future. I much prefer a more recent ad—see it here—in which another HP Labs person explains the development of a technology that will allow, for instance, school kids in Helsinki to know exactly when the tram is coming so they won’t have to wait outdoors in the cold. As he explains this, kids are shown getting this data from a mobile phone and charging out to meet the tram—which they proceed to pelt with snowballs, en masse. Funny. And if I had to mush the two ads together and give them one grade, it would be a B-plus.

But still. It’s fine to be impressed by tech toys. And it’s admirable to yearn for freedom. Do we really have to swallow the notion that we need the former to achieve the latter?