Radical Subtlety and Smartphone Ads

I was yelling at the TV for a lot of election night. I was at the Pio’s election night liveblog headquarters (read: Managing Editor Libby Arnosti’s house), watching a live feed of election coverage, as well as compulsively refreshing multiple tabs in my browser. As anyone who knows me will tell you, I don’t have the quietest voice to begin with, and when you get me riled up about something—well, there’s a lot of exclamation involved.

Amidst all of the political drama, however, there was something that got me excited enough to gather everyone’s attention and direct it to the screen. It wasn’t news; in fact, it had nothing to do with the election.

It was a cell phone commercial.

A month or so ago, electronics giant Samsung released a new TV spot advertising their Galaxy S III phone. In it, a woman, accompanied by her two daughters, is saying goodbye to her husband as he departs on a business trip. The girls tell their dad they made a video for him to watch on the plane, and their mom transfers it to his phone with a simple tap. Before the cab pulls off, however, she leans in the window and says, smiling, “I also made you a video! … You probably shouldn’t watch it on the plane.” And with that, the cab is off, with Dad waving goodbye to his girls and giving his wife a quick wink.

Okay, so what’s the big deal?

We hear all the time about sex tapes and sexting, and always in the same appalled, indignant tone. Despite the fact that people have been sharing depictions of sex since practically the beginning of time, the introduction of technology (cell phones and the Internet) into the mix has somehow revitalized society’s disdain for the practice. Smartphone sex—that is to say, sexting, exchanging erotic photos and videos, and your good old-fashioned phone sex to boot—may be the perversion du jour, but we treat it like a perversion nevertheless.

Because of that, if you told me that a cell phone ad was going to incorporate smartphone sex, I would have expected it in the context of digital security—“protect your family from predators.” I would have expected some necktie-wearing dad hollering up the stairs at his daughter, whose phone just buzzed with a lurid text from her boyfriend. Failing those, at the very least, I would have expected the scenario, a wife sending her husband a sex video, to be overly sexualized or exaggerated or turned into some gross distortion in order to reassure viewers that the scenario was all make-believe.

Samsung, however, avoided all of that. They presented sexuality without shame or excuses. Rather than reassuring viewers that this sort of sexuality was make-believe, the creators of the ad portray the couple’s sexuality as completely natural and normal. In essence, Samsung is acknowledging in a professionally produced official advertisement that healthy, well-adjusted people can be sexual, even in ways that involve technology. Sure, the ad is about a smartphone, not the fabric of American discourse surrounding sexuality, but in the midst of advertising a gadget, Samsung also made a bold statement, intentional or not, about sex and relationships.

I’ve said before that taking a sex-positive stance in a sex-negative society like ours is a revolutionary, even radical act, and I stand by that. The way that sex-positivity is expressed, however, hardly need be dramatic or flashy. Sex-positivity can take the form of incensed essays and public demonstrations, but it can also be seen in something as simple as a 30-second cell phone ad.




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