Mobile Phones in Advertising : Good intentions and Lingerie

This month, for Les Vases Communicants, we welcome Gaby David (LHIVIC, EHESS). You can find Antonio A. Casilli’s post on her research blog Corazonada.

Advertisements, as all images, are contextually created and perceived together with all the discourses that come enclosed and to the meanings we give them. Let’s just bear in mind that within the enormous advertisement landscape, mobile advertisements or even just advertisements that deal with mobile phones – as identity construction objects – are part of a wider form of imagery, such as newspapers, fashion magazines, beauty magazines, television, internet, etc. For this, I felt that analyzing some mobile-related commercials would be a good mean to try unveiling how our society’s ethical parameters move, are – or are not -pushed further, and/or in any case discussed.

Theoretical framework: Domestication

Using the framework of domestication I will analyze three ads, which will be treated as instances of symbolic productions – so to say representations. The domestication concept originated mainly from anthropology and consumption studies as well as from a move in media studies to consider the contexts in which Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) are experienced. Firstly it came from the wild animal taming metaphor. Then, it was one of Roger Silverstone’s main legacies to put forward the concept, examining how we experience domestication towards ‘media’ technologies.

Domestication looks beyond the adoption and use of ICTs to ask what the technologies and services mean to people, how they experience them and the roles that these technologies can come to play in their lives. Such domestication processes include the imagination of how technologies might find a place in the home and a role in people’s lives. How do people, encounter, deal with, reject and/or work out how to fit them into their everyday routines. These verbs relate mainly to the type of life and identity to which people aspire to have.[1]

However, “[…] technologies come pre-formed with meanings through the influence of advertising, design and all the media discourses surrounding them, both households and individuals then invest them with their own personal meanings and significance[2].”[emphasis added]. In other words, individuals do act, but within the constraints of both domestic and social contexts.

So, for this article I’ll take into account the mobile representations behind some advertising discourses. Since they often are a mirror of what our societies want and are able to buy – of course also metaphorically speaking! Myths and meanings related to mobile cultural-object phenomena appear also in advertisements and it is through them that a wider symbolism, a collective social discourse could be extrapolated and see light.

Let’s see what these advertisements say. Though, immediately if we use the verb ‘say’ at least three problems come to mind: a) The question of pictures saying things; advertisements as any other picture, just provide an example of how pictures don’t literally ‘say’ anything, people (we) do the talking. b) To whom is this saying something? c) Under what circumstances is a particular picture being shown and viewed?[3]

Who decides what gets shown and what pictures must not be distributed any further? Blaming it on the publisher’s decisions seems useless, since most of the times decisions are usually based in local community conventions: something that might be accepted in one place might not be so in the other and vice versa.

An example to recall and in reference to one of Benetton’s well known images, Marita Sturken[4] reminds us: “While in certain contexts, this image might connote racial harmony, in the United States it carried other connotations, most troubling the history of slavery in the United States and the use of black women slaves as “wet nurses” to breast-feed the white children of their owners.” It seems that several values are not as universal as is usually presupposed. In the same vein, Charles Ess remarked: “mobile devices evoke a wide gamut of crucial ethical questions – questions that require careful and systemic ethical reflection regarding these devices and their potential ethical and political issues[5].” [emphasis added]

For the analysis I have chosen three ads that were broadcasted both on television and the web and each one shows very different ranges of the imaginary world, some of the discourses that surround commercials in general and mobile advertisements in particular. They are samples of the different mobile media discourses and enclosed myths that have circulated in the last three years.

The first ad I will take up for further analysis is the last Nokia campaign’s ad: “somebody else’s phone”. In a first article in this former French blog post, I compared it to Cocteau’s La Voix Humaine. The main conclusions drawn at that moment were that it seems as if today it were more important to lose our mobile device than losing a relationship. The second object of analysis will be Lane Bryant’s new lingerie commercial and the last one a Symio’s mobile telephone ad featuring Pascal Duquenne.

False authenticity

In November 2008, Nokia launched a Europe-wide campaign; a creative concept that came from Wieden & Kennedy – the American advertising agency, well known for its work for Nike. This was one of the biggest campaigns in Nokia’s history. Each local agency proceeded to a slight adaptation by country. In France, the JWT advertising agency took charge, having a budget of 13M €. The device included among others: a 60 second TV spot, also available in 30 seconds and in 15 seconds – broadcasted from October to November 2008 – plus display and printed ads that put forward their products, and an online section that told the stories of three teenagers through daily webisodes.

There was a very fine use of digital resources. The campaign created false Facebook profiles, online posts and SMSs, etc… and during six weeks, fiction mingled with real public’s interactions. It was therefore really difficult to disentangle fact from fiction – producing the so called “false authenticity”[6].

Every event was referred in the brand’s website (now defunct) run by the marketing agency Fullsix[7]. The goal was neither to show the site itself, nor the photographs or any other data there posted, but to communicate and share the characters’ experiences. The ad was not selling a specific product, but values such as and love and friendship; transforming the public into fans, as if in a web-soap-opera. The principal role was not held neither by the phone nor the brand, but by three teenagers and their digital lives. With their mobile, the small daily events of these persons were captured and put online. We were thus able to lurk into their lives, listen to their music, read their text messages, flicker their photos, watch their videos, see their contacts and calendar. We were even able to find more information on each of the three characters false Facebook accounts. For example, there was – and still is – an account of a certain Anna Randall which is indeed an invented character.

Since they represent the campaign’s main age range target Nokia introduced us into these characters’ experiences: three stereotyped teens – Anna a Swedish supermodel and Luca and Jade two hipsters. Probably, because they symbolise/represent the primary marketing objective Nokia had towards these new models. The campaign’s concept was clear: show their daily lives, their emotions and how the new Nokia model could help build and strengthen their (our-by-reflection) relationships. The whole campaign was a sort of fiction game around these three imaginary characters.

Within the huger campaign “Somebody else’s phone”, “My telephone knows everything about me”, was made primarily as a television spot to become later a viral video (around late 2008). Its pitch, a masculine’s voice-over, lists in just one minute, many of all the things we can do with our phones. The commercial looks like what might be a trailer, designed to encourage us googlize the site and/or its characters.

The spot is a successful combination of still and moving images – mainly photographs in GIF format which are fairly choppy. At one moment Anna, the young model, is shot in a hotel room discussing on her mobile phone. We see her lying on a bed, wearing a bathrobe, in her intimacy. Small, very close to her head, the mobile phone is almost invisible, one can only imagine it, suspect its presence. In fact, today when we think of interpersonal communications, there is not even the need to see the object, the mobile is the apparatgeist that probably more spontaneously pops to our imagination. The embodiment concept also comes immediately to the process of integrating the device, the object itself, to the users’ body as part of their own bodily self.

Nokia “ Somebody else’s phone” screenshots

For the spot turns around three characters, stereotypes of gender roles in this short commercial are not so/that explicit. We do not really know if Anna is talking to Lucas, Jade or any other person, there is no sign in the clip to infer it. In general, unless in a videoconference, one is not able to see the person with whom one speaks. The mystery and charm of the voice are essential and both intrinsic things of our ephemeral telephone conversations. In the spot we neither see nor guess with whom Anna is talking to. But would there be an underlying (subliminal) agreement that she is talking with Lucas? Is it due to the fact that the camera is panoptic, as if dominating and this incites to think so?

Both John Berger’s[8] and Laura Mulvey’s[9] male gaze theory developed the idea that is the man’s gaze that looks and captures women as objects to look at. In the same spirit and according to Dong-Hoo Lee, women in mobile phone ads often play the eye-catching role in order to “display the glamour of the mobile phone” or “to fulfil men’s fantasies”. Dong-Hoo Lee back ups the idea that: “Research on advertising mobile ads also confirmed gender polarized images with which women are represented using their mobile phones as instruments of expression and sociability while men are shown using their mobile phones in business situations or other activities focusing on the business[10].” Two remarks that will be demonstrated in the next example.

Too hot for TV

To continue diving into the media and gender analysis, the second commercial of study is the latest controversial new lingerie Lane Bryant’s (LB) ad:

After being banned this ad has been finally given an airdate on Fox, April 28, 2010, during the closing minutes of the 9 p.m. edition of one of the most watched emissions in the United States: American Idol.

Why was this ad almost censored? In the United States, it even generated a small buzz. So why? Probably, not because the actress’ shape: she is plus sized than the usual occidental/western beauty pattern norm. Lisa Wade from the Occidental College Sociology department of Los Angeles develops in the Sociological Images blog her thesis: the reason is that the actress is too sexual, too hot for our television acceptation standards. Some of these standards of image showing are guided by implicit social conventions[11].

The contribution I’d like to add into the ethical discussion of this commercial refers mainly to try understanding why if it is a lingerie ad the mobile phone gets such an important role in it. Caron and Caronia already remarked that “As it really becomes part of our everyday habits, we even see a strong mobile phone presence in advertising that is in no way intended to promote it[12].” Or is it? We know that mobile phones are identity makers (Fortunatti, Lee, Ito, Ling) that tend to construct self-confidence, and to develop group and community acceptance. This ad wittily continues to build all these ontological trends and feelings in a way that goes beyond the lingerie brand. So once again, what is it in this ad that bothered part of the American audience? Coming from the American society it is difficult to believe that it was due to the actress’ overweight or big breasts. Probably it is clearly stated and disentangled by Niki Abril’s comment: “It’s not sexuality vs. asexuality, or aggression vs. passivity, so much as it is a different image than we’re used to absorbing.[13]

Lane Bryant's ad screenshots

The lingerie ad shows the model Ashley Graham trying different bras while she confirms a date through her mobile with Dan.

By the end of the spot the actress slightly dresses up, by putting on only a thin and à la sans façon opened dress-coat, grabs only two things: her keys and her mobile and leaves the house. As if these two objects were the only things she needed to be sure, to feel dressed, to feel “herself”. The bunch of keys as an object that represent her home and/or her car, and the mobile as representation of liberty, emancipation, freedom, actuality, modernity. Concepts match perfectly with what the commercial wants to transmit and arouse. In other times money and cigarettes could have been the symbols of what these feelings represent today.

According to the last International Telecommunication Union’s report, 60% of the world’s citizens have access to mobile phones. It presents the latest, end-2008 figures for key ICT indicators that show that there has been a clear shift from fixed to mobile cellular telephony. By the end of 2008, there were over three times more mobile cellular subscriptions than fixed telephone lines globally. Bottom line: mobile impact is increasing exponentially. For this reason, it easy to understand that nowadays, together with keys, ID cards and money, the portable phone is one of the most carried on objects. When people do have a mobile phone they tend to always take it with them, something which is intrinsic to the mobile, the ability to be carried anytime, anywhere.

But, what can it mean to be empowered by technology, and more specifically by the mobile? Two other remarks also taken from the more than comments 120 only in Sociological Images’ blog (many more can be found in other blogs, in YouTube and in LB’s webpage) picture this fact: Kunoichi – “I also get the impression that these women are enjoying looking at themselves. They’re not just lounging around in their undies. They’re looking at themselves in full length mirrors, and clearly liking what they see.” This reminds again the fact that the mobile is seen as an identitary object. Another comment by Conducterss adds: “… but you “can” be the Lane Bryant model because she has dates, a cell-phone calendar, a mother–and maybe you have those things too.” This clearly pictures the projection-identification (Riou 2002) argument so used in advertisement. “By using a number of registers, such as dress, hairstyle, gestures, ways of speaking tastes, music, and favorite activities, advertising discourses act as mirrors. But do they reflect the right image?[14]

Coding and encoding, between two chairs

The third and last object of this analysis is the commercial Pascal Duquenne played for Simyo a mobile virtual network operator, which is operated by KPN in Belgium, Germany, France, the Netherlands and Spain. The company was founded in May 2005, and its headquarters are in Düsseldorf. The spot was created by Buzzman, an agency known for its daring ads. The ad, was made by the French film director Erick Zonca, director of “Daydreams of Angels” (La vie rêvée des anges).

The pitch goes: “Hello, I am Pascal Duquenne and I am an actor. You have seen, I am a bit different, but, actually I am as you: I love telephoning.[…] If you are like me… this might interest you, thanks! […]”[15] In this way Simyo made him the spokesperson for the different, underling that we’re all different anyway, and each one in our one way.

True, Pascal Duquenne is foremost The Belge Down Syndrome actor and he has already played this evidence into the movies, especially in the film Le huitième jour. However, people who have Down syndrome rarely appear in advertisements, and, if they do, it is generally with something related with health topics. It is then somehow nice seeing him publicizing something that belongs to everyday life: a mobile phone rate. Having decided that it was Pascal Duquenne to feature the ad was taking parts and I salute the move. In the first week, “no less than 700 messages were posted on 150-200 blogs and forums on the Net,” said Anne-Cecile Ladegaillerie, executive director of the communications agency Buzzman, which had created the campaign and chose Duquenne. Only after three weeks of release, Simyo admitted to be overtaken by the events, having had to dedicate a special discussion area on their site as well as a special blog.[16]

Before the launch, in an attempt to avoid making a controversial spot, the agency Buzzman called disabled persons’ associations and asked them about their reaction to such a marketing campaign. The advocacy groups who support people with disabilities saw the campaign rather positive and had reacted kindly to the initiative. The ad is good for it positions Pascal as a citizen like any other, with the same needs, considered the National Union of Associations of Parents and people with intellectual disabilities (Unapei). This is the first time a mentally handicapped has the main role in an ad, it is necessarily to push the debate forward.[17]

After having watched the commercial several times, I still feel between two chairs, not sure about my reactions. For the ad, in my opinion, is ambiguous, we are somehow interpellated by it. How does it portray people with Down syndrome? Does it try to expand the limits of what we are usually used to seeing or not seeing in ads? Is this commercial then educating our eyes and souls, betting that our gaze towards different people will someday finally change? I hope yes. At least it helps give more visibility to those people with special needs. But, on the other hand: doesn’t the marketing department play with all the above questions, taking profit of the possible compassion we take on people with special needs and on our mixed feelings when watching it? Do we then tend to mistrust the ad’s ethics and then disliking it? Are they taking into account that “the selling of difference is a central aspect of today’s marketing”? Then the ad’s ethical discussion is probably not about non-Down persons and/or Down people in publicity, as it is again about different images that we’re used to watching and absorbing.

“We were not looking to shock the public, but we are not in the charity-business, either. Like all brands, Simyo is looking to make money”, explained the brain of the campaign, Georges Mohammed-Chérif. “Pascal Duquenne is more than just someone with Down syndrome; he is a well-known actor with a positive image and an incredible life story. Now we know where we are heading and we’re not going to pretend to be surprised that this is successful. We’d be pleased to find this stirring a debate.[18]

In ‘Coding-Encoding’, Stuart Hall – taking the television as example, and which could be extrapolated here to the analysis of these commercials – challenged all three components of the mass communications model. He argued that (i) meaning is not simply fixed or determined by the sender; (ii) the message is never transparent; and (iii) the audience is not a passive recipient of meaning. For this we’d have to remember that advertising discourses cannot be summarized as rational arguments, since “[t]hey also convey propositions about lifestyles, prescriptions, values, and codes of use […]”. They do not depict the fact of “owning a mobile phone”, but rather what it is “to be young with a mobile phone”[19], an LB consumer with a mobile phone or a person with special needs with a mobile phone.

Last remarks

There are always myths being constructed around mobile discourses. In these commercials some of them can be identified.

The first advertisement pictures the myth of the mobile as first need object, as something one must have, and which is very much linked to the privacy-intimacy myth: the mobile as a symbol of myself in my everyday life. This is specifically embedded in the slogan “my telephone knows everything about me”, my mobile as my intimate journal, something that I can not dare losing and then puts the phone in the same level of an animated being. The reality versus fiction myth is also present: we tend to mislead the false Facebook accounts, SMSs, photographs, etc., all which were fictional objects created for us to believe them as if real as referents. The myth of the evidence as index is here also taken for granted.

The second advertisement appeals more to mobile and gender related myths. The usual women stereotypes related to mobile representations: family coordination, remote mothering and/or women in need of protection are here turned aside and even confronted. In this LB’s ad the mobile is portrayed as key device of liberty. The myth of the mobile here would be the mobile as freedom enabler.

Pascal Duquenne starring Symio’s commercial tries to appeal to our compassion towards people with special needs. Its underlying message is: anyone can have/use a mobile phone even people with Down syndrome. This probably happens to be true. Albeit, Pascal Duquenne is not any Down syndrome person: he is one of the unique well-known actors with Down syndrome. The myth of the different is here then detoured by his uniqueness. For, in this ad he does not portray his difference or special needs, but his actor’s skills, recognition and fame, as in any other actor-brand association. (Branding as a marketing term move that refers to the process of linking a brand to a well-known personality or actor. Through this strategic management an entire set of assets linked directly or indirectly to the name and/or symbol will identify the brand influences for both the customer and the company owning the brand.)

Analysis of social power and its representations are probably within one of the most interesting cultural studies debates. For these reasons, analysing commercials is a risky task. But, under no doubt “[a]mong the various discourses, that of advertising remains one of the most powerful. Beyond the usual commercial marketing, advertising confronts us daily with sets of words and images, veritable micro-narratives that both represent and construct culture. Naturally, advertising is based on user’s logic and narratives, which it helps to circulate in social space. It plays a major role in our representations of the social world in which we live and of ourselves in that world. Not only does advertising convey scenarios involving techno-objects, but also and perhaps above all, it helps to define the very identities of technology users[20].”

The mobile is an object integrated into everyday life and so are its discourses also ubiquitous in all media: in television, in films, in the newspapers, etc. “Examining these discourses makes possible to read the state of the market, see the values injected into promoting the object, and gain a better understanding of how users are seen by telecommunication companies. Advertising discourses correspond to features of society, either because they reflect it or because they are in some way a catalyst[21].” This abridged mobile advertisements ethical examination is what I tried doing. A subjective way of seeing and thinking these implied gazes towards contemporary mobile advertisement images and discourses.

Gaby David

PhD candidate – Lhivic – EHESS


1. John Berger, Ways of Seeing, New York and London, Penguin, 1972.

2. André H. CARON et Letizia CARONIA, Moving Cultures, Mobile Communication in Everyday Life, McGill-Quenn’s University Press, 2007.

3. Richard CHALFEN, Snapshots Versions of Life, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, Bowling Green, Ohio, 1987.

4. Charles ESS, Always On? Ethical and Political Dimensions of Mobile Communication Technologies, pp. 17-25, in Communications in the 21st Century, Engagement and Exposure, Mobile Communiction and the ethics of Social Networking, Kristof Nyiri (ed.), Passagen Verlag, 2009.

5. Stuart HALL, ‘Encoding and Decoding in the media discourse’, Stencilled paper 7, 1973, pp. 1-20. on line

6. Ilpo KOSKINEN and Esko KURVINEN, Mobile Multimedia and users: On domestication of mobile multimedia, ver article & libro

7. Dong-Hoo LEE, “Women’s Creation of Camera Phone Culture”, Fibreculture Journal, 2005 Issue 6, Mobility, New social Intensities and the Coordinates of Digital Networks,

8. Laura MULVEY, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Originally Published in Screen 16.3, Autumn, 1975,

9. Lin PRØITZ, « A Play of Visibility. Performances of Gender and Sexuality in Young Women’s and Men’s Camphone Images », in The Mobile Phone Turn. A study of Gender, Sexuality and Subjectivity in Young People’s Mobile Phone Practices, 2007.

[1] Leslie Haddon, The Contribution of Domestication Research to In-Home Computing and Media Consumption, The Information Society, No. 22, 2006, pp.1-9.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Richard Chalfen, Snapshots Versions of Life, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, Bowling Green, Ohio, 1987, p 121.

[4] Lisa Cartwright and Marita Sturken Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture, Oxford, 2001, p. 40-41.

[5] Charles Ess, Always On? Ethical and Political Dimensions of Mobile Communication Technologies, pp. 17-25, in Communications in the 21st Century, Engagement and Exposure, Mobile Communiction and the ethics of Social Networking, Kristof Nyiri (ed.), Passagen Verlag, 2009.

[6] Tim Leberecht,Somebody Else’s Phone: Would you look through it ?”, Cnet news, 2 November 2008,

[7] Cf. Virginie Baucomont, « Nokia lance une des plus grosses campagnes de son histoire », CBNEWS – Communication & Business News, 16 October 2008,

[8] John Berger, Ways of Seeing, New York and London, Penguin, 1972.

[9] Laura Mulvey, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, in Screen 16.3, Autumn, 1975, pp. 6-18. An online version:

[10] Dong-Hoo Lee, “Women’s Creation of Camera Phone Culture”, Fibreculture Journal, Issue 6, Mobility, New social Intensities and the Coordinates of Digital Networks, 2005,

[11] Lisa Wade, Plus-sized women in lingerie: Too hot for TV ?, Sociological Images, inspiring sociological imaginations everywhere, 23 April 2010,

[12] André H. Caron et Letizia Caronia, Moving Cultures, Mobile Communication in Everyday Life, McGill-Quenn’s University Press, 2007, p. 100.

[13] Lisa Wade, Plus-sized women in lingerie: Too hot for TV?, Op. cit. art.

[14] Ibid. Caron and Caronia, p. 82.

[15] Bonjour, je suis Pascal Duquenne, et je suis un comédien. Vous avez vue je suis un peu différent, mais, en faite je suis comme vous : j’adore téléphoner. […] Si vous êtes comme moi, ça peut vous intéresser, merci ! […]

[16] Phillippe, Pascal Duquenne, actor de la publicité Symio cartone au niveau audience: le bilan, Handimobility, Le blog francophone de tous les handicaps – Association Handimobility. 2 February 2009,

[17] Ibid.

[18] Kristen R, Vanksenculturebuzz, buzz and communication agency, Buzznews, 12 January 2009,

[19] Ibid. Caron and Caronia, p. 100.

[20] Ibid. Caron, p. 78.

[21] Ibid. Caron, p. 79.