Advertising - Ross Diamond on the growing pains of the mobile phone industry
While Billy Connolly is shrieking through the TV tea breaks with self-referential hilarity at the idea of companies spending millions to change their names to such ridiculous alternatives as "Lotto", the One2One mobile phone brand is being relaunched as T-Mobile.
Stressing the global status of the brand, the T-Mobile print campaign shows spliced images of Britain and America: half a London black cab cut with a New York yellow cab. The associated television advert focuses more on promoting the mobile phone as a grown-up product for grown-up people. In fact, we see and learn so little of the product - no fetishised object, no pricing information - that it appears we are not being sold a product at all, but an entire company.
The ad shows years passing as the tennis superstars Steffi Graf and Andre Agassi win tournament after tournament in a quickly passing parade of hideous hairstyles, until we slow to the present and see Steffi alone in the back of a car, heading out into the night. She is smiling and phoning her boys at home. Andre answers in a wholesome, sun-drenched poster image of fatherhood. He is preparing the baby's feed, all smiles and confident competence.
Andre and Steffi are the advertisers' dream couple: both are globally recognised and uniquely successful, yet have very different individual reputations. He is the rebel, a "comeback kid" with a previous showbiz marriage and still winning; she is more focused, stolid and now retired. The voice-over intones: "Staying in touch can be an achievement in itself" (can taking out a contract for a mobile phone really be as difficult as winning Wimbledon?). What it is telling us is that, as when once we felt guilty for not spending much of our two weeks in the sun writing postcards, we should now feel guilty for not phoning home every day when abroad.
In these days of panic over mobile phone thefts, the unexpected explosion of teenage text-messaging, concerns about the effects of radiation bursts close to developing brains, controversy over the siting of masts, and the increasingly irritating sound of "musical" ring tones, the company perhaps feels the need to combat the encroaching association of mobile phones with thin-skulled children. By showing the successful maturing of Graf and Agassi, it reminds us of the grown-up uses for mobiles. (I hesitate to say "adult", as pornographic chatlines are emphatically not what the Saatchis want to imply.)
The campaign is being run across several European countries - including the Czech Republic. When I visited what was then Czechoslovakia, a year or two after the Velvet Revolution, there was almost no advertising anywhere outside of Prague. Occasionally, however, along the A-roads, large new structures loomed from the hedgerows. In big black letters the words - in English - were clear: "I Am A Billboard. I Sell Your Products." Because the locals couldn't read this, and in any case had no products that they wished to promote to people speeding past in their Skodas, neither I nor any of my Czech friends was ever quite clear who the intended audience was. I feel much the same today when I see an advertisement for a corporation rather than a product. T-Mobile's rebranding, however, is more a case of Snickers-Cif syndrome, where global branding harmonisation leads to time-honoured names being replaced with appellations created in corporate Esperanto.
The final tagline is a classic example of meaningless ad-speak: "Get more." We are not told what we are getting more of, nor even how to go about getting more of this nameless good. We are also being sold the idea of transnational mobile phone calls. Could this be because mobile phone users are now charged to receive as well as to make these calls?
Ross Diamond is a musician and manager of community development projects in south London