Commentary

Why So Serious?

Heaven help me. The great iPhone campaign has begun.

"ndu pk m p" says the incoming SMS. A novel marketing pitch? My phone picking up stray signals from the SETI project? Nope. Just my daughter's way of reminding me on a regular basis that the QWERTY keypad on her current phone is breaking down. "Huh?" I answer.

"iht tis pone!!!"

It's a patchy thing, this keyboard problem of hers. It never seems to be an issue when she urgently needs to be picked up or anything like that. But at her leisure, usually when one of those relentless iPhone ads hits the TV screen, I get a cryptic sequence of text messages, usually ending in "RRRRRgggh!!"

Bottom line: The girl wants an iPhone. After two years of dismissing my gadget on the grounds that it didn't have the requisite hard keyboard, and now that her Verizon contract is running down, she has an Apple in her eye -- or her eye on an Apple. But more to the point, suddenly the iPhone struck her as more fun and interesting than merely cool. "Ooh look, 'Spin the Bottle,'" she says, spying the cute branded app from Coke on my iPhone. I try to act dismayed that she even knows what spin the bottle is, but she quickly counters. "You have Playboy on your iPhone." Damn! I thought I had taken that off after mentioning it a few columns ago. "And what are all of these farting things?"

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My daughter's growing case for getting an iPhone pretty much boils down to one point: It looks like a lot of fun. She likes the idea of exploring a relentless stream of apps. She also let slip that "I would use it more," as if that were a goal. In fact, I think these are fine arguments. Isn't she tripping over one of the salient aspects of mobile media and person-to-person communications? It is fun. It is engaging. It is the path we now use to exchange quips, jokes to one another, grab a minute or two of gaming or fun "did you see this?" gadgets like the Zippo-branded app.

Which made me think about the advertising that is starting to nudge onto the phone display's edges. Does much of it capture the light spirit in which many of us are engaging the device itself? We talk often about how mobile marketing needs to embody the conversational, person-to-person aspect of its host rather than replicating Web media on another screen. This is a good goal, but at the same time we should also not replicate the ineffectiveness, the leaden unimaginativeness of most Web advertising.

Exceptions help prove the rule. A number of critics have taken note recently of Apple's online campaigns. In the campaign around the App Store's billionth download, a cascade of apps flowed from a lederboard to a skyscraper unit. In a newer piece of creative, John "PC" Hodgeman tries to short-circuit the click through a button on the overhead banner that is pitching Apple's iLife suite. Hilarity (or what passes for it in online advertising) ensues. As some commentators have mentioned, the Apple campaigns are notable because they are among the few memorable execution on a Web display advertising platform that is notably unimaginative and unmemorable. At digital media conferences, we still ask and leave unanswered the same provocative question: Can anyone recall a Web ad they have seen recently?

I am afraid that the same can be said for mobile display right now. Aside from the occasional witty branded app, how much of mobile marketing embodies the spirit of exploration and light, drive-by play that users bring to the device when they flip the phone in a waiting room or between meetings?

Another exception that proves the rule: The outdoor clothing retailer Moosejaw launched its smart-phone-optimized mobile Web site last week, which is remarkable because it is, well, fun. One tier of buttons includes dating advice, send-ups of Twitter, the company FlickR feed and one item that just reads "In Case You are Bored." Small as it may seem, the refreshing thing about this site is not that it is uproariously funny (it isn't) but that it is speaking to me in a voice and tone that acknowledges the mobile situation. Sure, there are times when we may need to use the data channel to find mission-critical or situation-critical information, but I imagine a lot of us are tapping into the smart phone's non-voice, non-email functionality when we need a distraction.

Let's face facts about this next new medium. Five years ago most of us did not need a cell phone. We lived very nicely without it. We liked the convenience and the ubiquitous connectivity mobile gave us, and we used all manner of rationalizations to justify adopting cell phones. In typical American consumerist fashion, we turned want to need. Mobile phones were good in emergencies. They kept us closer to our kids. Etc. All of these reasons are justifiable, but they were more ephemeral than we care to admit. We just like having a cell phone. And we spend most of our time using them for light conversations with one another, to trade "whassup?" SMS messages, and now to check weather and sports and play quick game... 30 times a day.

There is nothing wrong with the phone being fun. But there may be something wrong or misplaced about advertising that doesn't speak to us in the same spirit. When I was trawling for good mobile ads the other day, I came upon the most recent Land Rover campaign and another for the upcoming video game "Infamous." Both the banners and the landing pages struck me as sadly similar. Here is a brand. Click, then land on a page with a set of horizontal buttons to click further into assets. They were both very mobile-friendly and well-evolved multimedia executions. Neither left me with a compelling top line memory or message. And neither showed me a whit of wit. Neither acknowledged the obvious: that if I was using the mobile Web, I probably had some time to kill. Arm me with something to kill a bit of time with and use the opportunity to educate me about your product. That's why they call it "creative."

"So I get an iPhone?" my daughter chimes in. Well, no. I am still explaining to her how much all of this is going to cost, that an iPhone for a 17-year-old is extravagant, that a cell phone is not just a toy, that the last thing she needs is another distraction... yadda, yadda.

Funny how that QWERTY keyboard starts working fine when she needs it.

"so unfair. U just said"

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