July 3, 2008

AT & T and gender: commercial critique part 1

Posted in advertising, beauty culture, Commercial Critique, gender roles, gender stereotypes, kyriarchy, representation, television at 11:09 pm by LB

Is anyone besides me really annoyed by the latest AT & T Wireless commercial campaign? They sure say a lot about gender expectations and values vis-a-vis gender and behavior.

The “alter ego” commercials (or so they are dubbed on youTube) have one version of the commercial’s subject talking to the camera and one acting out a scene in the background. The person talking to the camera is saying how someone doesn’t have AT &T, therefore they have no reception, therefore something awful is happening to them, represented by the storyline being acted out in the background.

“Kelly’s Dad” was the first one I saw that I really didn’t like. Like most other annoying representation of stereotyped assumptions, I rolled my eyes and said “great.” But after several more commercials from AT & T that feed unhealthy gender assumptions and values, a pattern has emerged.

In this one, the dad addresses his daughter, saying how since they don’t have AT &T, the text message she sent him from Lover’s Lane (the scene in the background is the father frantically knocking on car windows parked at a scenic perch) saying that she’s “spending the night” at a friend’s house never was received by him. Thus, the undesirable scene in the background: father worried, looking for his daughter in parked cars, and come Monday, you will be the crazy girl who no one wants to date.”

What We Learn:

  • a father worried about his missing daughter is “crazy”
  • lying to your parents should be enabled by technology
  • that lying to your parents to do things you should maybe think twice about will get you dates
  • that having parents who care about you won’t get you dates
  • teens not in healthy communication with their parents about sexuality is normalized

*edited 7/15 after being made aware in comments that misread part of the commercial

Moving along to this gem I saw last week:

where “beautiful, gorgeous, totally popular Paul” is texting her, but since she doesn’t have AT & T she has no reception, and isn’t getting any of them. Instead, she has to “hang with Brian, who, to be honest, smells a bit […] prom’s gonna be a blast!”

(note: I’m 99% sure the text of this commercial was changed-I remember the “smells a bit” line to be much more insulting, but I can’t find any proof of my recollection.

What We Learn

  • a “beautiful” person is more worthwhile to spend time with than a less attractive and “smelly” person
  • a pretty and probably popular girl like Jen ‘deserves’ (is entitled) to spend time with someone of equal beauty (how differently this commercial would have read if the girl was less attractive or represented as ‘geeky’)
  • not only are unattractive and overweight people less valuable, but they are also clumsy and uninteresting
  • it’s ‘totally’ OK to ditch plans with someone to hang out with someone who is more attractive
  • overweight people smell
  • the right technology is important for planning your life around boys and being noticed by the “right” one

Glad to know valuing people based on looks no longer discriminates based on gender!

It’s interesting to compare these two ads with the others in the series. After all, these two are the only ones that feature females using the phones. If AT & T’s representation of women are “slutty” lying daughters (see * above) and snooty shallow teen queens (and both white), then how are men represented?

As businessmen.

As world travelers (with a family).

As sports fans.

As music fans and buddies.

And most interestingly, all as adults.

One features work, one features family, 2 feature apparently single life, complete with friendships, or at least a life outside of romantic relationships. 2 feature black characters, 2 feature white. And not that cookie are deserved, but cool that the businessman is black. The two featuring females (well, girls?) Not so much. Both involve the girls’ lives in terms of opposite-sex romantic relationships. Both are white. And both present women as less than sympathetic: status-driven and lying sluts. Just. Great.

Finally, we have the classic “boys will be boys.” Now this one isn’t from the “alter ego” campaign, but it’s for AT & T and deals with gender, so I ‘m including it. Plus it actually has an adult female in it in equal time, although she’s not the consumer of the phone:

Apparently the two at the table are both from the TV show “The Hills” (which I could care less about).

What We Learn:

  • Leering at women (though “subtly) walking down the street in from of your girlfriend while she’s primping for your benefit and while you’re in a conversation with her is either “no big deal” or is something he should deny/lie about (not sure what they’re going for) hence his “what?”
  • No matter what your girlfriend looks like, there’s always someone other/better to look at
  • Such behavior is almost cute (the way she smiles and rolls her eyes)
  • the lyric “heaven” refers to ephemeral eye candy, not to your committed partner. Classy.The YouTube commenters also thought the ironic use of the song was “hilarious.”
  • “Reflect your style”: his style is clearly ogling, specifically anyone who isn’t his girlfriend (she’s much prettier than the other two, IMO). Also, the phone is the “hottest accessory”: is that supposed to also be referring to the two “hot” females walking by–accessories??

What I also find fascinating is how all the YouTube comments I read about the characters were talking about how “hot” the guy (Brody) is. I have no doubt The Hills has a large female demographic. So I guess all AT & T had to do was put in a cute guy to get the female audience to talk, even with such an anti-woman message (many women also commented on how piggish guys are who are like that). So is the function of the boys-will-be-boys sexism an appeal to the male consumer as a wink-wink to the guys in the audience, as a nod to men’s collective sense of entitlement to women’s bodies? Like a “we know you all do it!” Well, only if all men are sexist pigs do “you all” do it. Which we know isn’t actually true, but it would seem that way by looking at commercial media.

The concept behind this commercial really doesn’t sit well with me considering the two recent court rulings that using mirrors and cel phones to look up women’s skirts and photograph them in public places isn’t actually illegal. Thanks to this commercial, AT & T presents the consumer with yet another way to invade women’s privacy in subtler and subtler ways.

Interestingly, this phone is called “Shine.” I can think of a lot better ways than ignoring your girlfriend and drooling over other women to advertise a product called “Shine.” But sex is everything, eh kids?

Interesting too how this one and “Jen’s phone” play off each other. In the first one, the girl is a teen, wanting to be hanging out with the popular cute guy who she thinks isn’t calling her, but instead is hanging out with the less cool guy instead…in this one, the adult guy has a girlfriend, both of whom are ideally attractive, who he’s supposedly “spending time with” but instead he’s spending time looking at other womens’ bodies. And she should just “deal” with this.

UPDATED 7/4: This just hit me today: As the female character is talking to her boyfriend, she is applying lip gloss using her Shine phone. In other words, the “reflection” of the guy is objectification/sexism, or desiring others, and the “reflection” of the girl is making herself more desirable. Classic gendered behavior.

And shame on them if this is true: I read on a youTube comment that commercial was changed from the original “ur a fag” to “ur a pig.” If so-very not cool on the original, and super not cool since she wasn’t even meaning “fag” to be gay-how would “checking out” 2 women make him gay?-but meant it to be demeaning. Sexism and heterosexism wrapped in one insulting commercial.

(cross-posted to The Reaction)



  1. Okay not that I’m a fan of the first commenercial, but it wasn’t the kids was lying, dad didn’t get the call because of where he was, he was in the area that got no reception. I never said she lied, only that he didn’t get the message up there.

    I HATED the second commencial, the shallow pretty girl crap has gotten on my last nerve since I was at school, and the ad folks can’t seem to get enough of it.

    And as far as the last one, he’d have gotten a heck of a lot more than a text message if I had been the woman with him at that table.

  2. lindabeth said,

    Yeah, I’m seeing that I think I did misinterpret part of the 1st commercial. I interpreted it to mean that she went out with a boy, and texted her dad saying she would be at a friend’s house (but she’s really with the boy) and now the dad is looking for her.

    I editing the posting above to reflect my misreading of the commercial. thanks all for pointing that out to me!

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