If You Don't Have a Smart Phone, You Don't Exist – At Least, Not According to Hollywood

It seems like every time an onscreen character needs to cancel a date, order pizza or check out the horrifying photos they’ve been sent by a serial killer, they whip out a sparkling smartphone. But when I walk down the street thumbing through text messages on my dumbphone, I notice plenty of people holding gadgets just like mine. Sure, it’s possible that the smartphone’s onscreen dominance is a recent and very visible example of the unconscious assertion of privilege. It’s also possible, however, that it’s actually a very conscious one.


In The Handbook of Gender, Sex and Media, Cynthia Carter notes that the depiction of different genders, ethnicities and lifestyles in popular media tells audiences “what types of roles and behaviors are most approved of and valued in society.” A cultural group’s presence on screen, then, “signifies its social existence” and confirms its worth within—and to the rest of—society.

Naturally, the reverse may also be true: that the onscreen absence of a group or behavior signifies its “symbolic annihilation” – that it’s being actively ignored by culture-shaping media, and that it’ll therefore begin to fade from mainstream memory. 

Film and TV, of course, aren’t obliged to give a fair picture of real life. They provide entertainment, and the “fourth wall” allows us to enjoy fictional works by separating viewers from the real-life production choices being made behind the scenes – choices that impact our experience. Many filmmakers, for example, have chosen to take cigarettes off the screen—or at least, restrict smoking to bad guys—which helps remove them from view somewhat, and may or may not have helped to push down smoking rates.

In the past few years, we’ve similarly witnessed the very deliberate “killing off” of the flip phone in popular media, and thus as a culturally acceptable piece of technology. That bulky staple of the ‘90s and ‘00s, once as chic and commonplace in popular media as a lit butt was in Bogart’s day, now primarily seems to be the personal tech go-to of onscreen drug dealers and serial killers.

What does this seedy new casting of the flip phone tell viewers about the item’s real-life users, about popular preferences, and about the motivations of movie-makers? And how does this affect flip-phone owners?

Previously, on Product Placement…”

First, let’s consider the tech gadgets we see onscreen, where they’re showing up in popular media, and how this affects us. 

AdWeek estimated that in 2013 total global spending on product placement in movies alone amounted to $1.8 billion. Of the 35 films to achieve #1 box office status in 2014 (14 of which had no identifiable product placements), Apple products appeared in nine of them, or about 25 percent, more than any other brand. Their devices also appeared in 42 percent of 2011’s #1 films and almost 50 percent of 2009’s, contributing to a lifetime tally of 145 appearances in #1 movies. And did so entirely for free, per the company’s unspoken but well-known policy of refusing to pay for placement. 

High-tech gadgets like the iPhone show up in many genres, but usually in the same ways. Advertising scholar Pamela Miles Homer notes that “subtle,” contextual, and/or plot-related product placements, including repeated ones in the same film, result in “relatively positive” brand attitudes from consumers, but that obvious ones annoy us.

The latter method was applied to the plot of “Game Changer,” a 2010 episode of Modern Family. When the Apple iPad launches on the birthday of middle-aged dad Phil, his nontraditional extended family springs into action and heroically lands the gift (which Phil craves desperately) after a series of snags and pratfalls. Unlike Phil, critics were not thrilled

After fallout from the episode, one Modern Family producer admitted publicly that his team “may have gone a little too far in hindsight," that "the public thought [the episode] was a giant sellout," and that overall, it had "sort of backfired." The episode also didn’t bring about any compensation for ABC or 20th Century Fox, nor did the show’s staff get any freebie iPads, as producers had hoped. The producers did convince 20th Century Fox Television “to spring for iPad's for the show's department heads,” however. (Which means that Apple not only benefited from the sitcom’s gratuitous and 100 percent free promotion of its new product, it also profited, by selling a handful of iPads at new-gadget-mania prices.)

While we prefer our placements to be subtle, studies also suggest that long-term exposure to the same brands, behaviors, and items makes us gradually accept what we see on screen as normal. A 2011 review of product placement effectiveness concluded that, despite initial inner protest, TV viewers get used to a product’s presence in a show over time as “the brand image becomes more in agreement with the program image.” 

In keeping with this, many episodes of Modern Family and other popular shows exhibit Apple gadgets being used happily in peripheral ways. In youth-aimed shows like New Girl and The Big Bang Theory, the presence of high-tech (and high-end) items is mostly unspoken but occasionally pops up to allow for text etiquette crises, hard drive disasters and cool-versus-goofy characterization.

The smartphone chiefly fills stock and bit parts in film, too. In 2014, high-tech devices were amid the action in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, while Apple and Samsung phones filled out Ride Along’s edges. Numerous conversations in The Fault in Our Stars are held via text message because, as viewers accept, that’s probably how all teens communicate nowadays.

The more closely we look at these minor, nonchalant placements, however, the more we realize not just how widespread they are, but also how great their collective impact may be.

In The Interview, James Franco’s TV host character rushes into the office of his producer, played by Seth Rogen, to excitedly show off some news he’s pulled up on his smartphone. Rogen is already talking on his own smartphone, so Franco grabs the device from Rogen’s hands, quickly throws it against a wall, and replaces it with his own. In this scene, the two smartphones are so inconsequential, serving only to display plot-driving news (which Rogen then reads aloud) and to set up a joke, that Franco’s character actually disposes of one. “Dude! The fuck?” Rogen yells. “That was John Kerry's office!”

Overall, placed products primarily serve to establish character lifestyles, their socioeconomic statuses, and – if the content is good enough to binge on – our own aspirations and expectations in these areas. And while a few “game-changing” examples of hyperactive product placement exist, on screen tech’s takeover by high-tech gadgets has mostly been a subtle, creeping one.

So, if all the coolest people on screen have high-tech gear, how do the rest of us measure up?

Surveys by the Pew Research Center from January 2014 indicate that 90 percent of American adults own a cell phone, but that only 58 percent have smartphones. Demographics affect ownership rates, too: 47 percent of adults earning less than $30k annually own a smartphone, versus 61 percent making between $50k and $74.9k. According to Yahoo, most smartphone users are between 18 and 44 years old, and 52 percent use an Android OS (versus Apple’s mandatory iOS platform). 

This means that just under 25 percent of U.S. adults own an iPhone, a fact that’s quite disproportionate to Apple’s top ranking for cell phone appearances in TV and film.

As for home computers, the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2011 surveys revealed that, while around 96 percent of individuals living in households with annual income over $100k reported having a computer at home, only 56.7 percent of households making less than $25k did. As to connectedness, 86 percent of the high-income set went online at home, as opposed to 49.8 percent of persons in the under $25k group. 

Representations of U.S. tech ownership in popular media, then, don’t line up with reality. What’s the problem?

According to Sheila Dugan, chief marketing officer for EveryoneOn, the public’s misperception of tech norms makes her group’s nonprofit mission – to get unconnected households online and provide Internet literacy training – a lot harder:

“If you look at television or movies, everyone has a nice shiny new cell phone, people don't talk about not having Internet access at home, and everyone has a computer. That's something that we battle against constantly: the perception that this problem has been solved, and that everyone can afford a computer [and] Internet access. [T]hat we should go on to the next problem.”

She pointed out that, of the 1 in 4 Americans not online, the majority are from minority, senior and low-income households. One hurdle to getting online is cost. “If you have trouble trying to figure out how to feed your family,” she said, “paying the large cable and internet bill is not something you can swing each month.” Many offline persons have also “spent most of their lives where Internet access wasn’t considered a necessity,” Dugan explained, and don’t choose to devote resources to it, while still others are held back by the “discomfort” of not being computer literate.

Dugan’s national nonprofit offers local listings for free digital literacy training via its website (or by texting "connect" to 21545), and works with refurbishers to provide households with laptops for $150-200 each. EveryoneOn also works with Internet service providers to create low-cost offers “at a price point that most households would be comfortable paying,” or around $10 per month.

While "simple inconveniences" are constant, the major impacts of having little or no Internet access are many, too. Dugan shared the story of a high school student who, after the public library closed each day, would sit with her mother in the family car outside a McDonald’s for hours each school night. Since the restaurant’s free Wi-Fi was her only option for after-hours Internet access, she’d do homework and even work on college applications from the parking lot next door, using a laptop in the dark. "That's not the way we want our children to learn," Dugan added.

For Dugan, digital literacy is about "full participation" in society, not only to keep people in touch with others, but to maintain equal access to government services and education. If y"Once people are online…the improvement of quality of life – from education to health – will happen as well."

Rasmus Mortensen of Seattle-based InterConnection explained that his team struggles to raise awareness about the reality of technology not just among more privileged and tech-enabled demographics, but among his target clientele, too.

“To us, it is important that people understand how much they can accomplish with a refurbished laptop or desktop,” Mortensen says. “You do not necessarily need the latest laptop or tablet to write a job application, stream movies or do your homework. That is often what it seems like when tech is represented in popular culture. We try to educate people that refurbished computers are great options.”

While groups like EveryoneOn, InterConnection and the FCC-designated Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC) push to get American households online, a variety of organizations are still working to give vital phone access to upwards of 10 percent of U.S. residents. Providers of cell phones and mobile service like Safelink WirelessAssurance Wireless and Budget Mobile offer free or low-cost “lifelines” to qualified customers, but a number of groups – USAC included – also provide free land lines for those households that are, effectively, completely incommunicado.

Making Connections

The driving forces behind brands in films and TV – being mostly financial – may be less complex than the reasons behind, say, long-standing gender- and ethnicity-related imbalances in film. Thankfully, increasing scrutiny is being applied to these imbalances, and will hopefully result in a more accurate, Hollywood-wide representation of the rich variety of skin tones, languages, cultures, and identities present in the U.S. and across the world.

However, the consequences of high-tech products’ onscreen dominance – unlike the many, massively damaging effects of a predominantly white Hollywood – go largely unnoticed. As a result, little effort has yet been made to better represent socioeconomic diversity through the gizmos and other lifestyle indicators we see onscreen. 

The Guardian recently observed a growing trend of flip-phone use among celebrities and other fashionable figures. This could be attributed, perhaps, to recent smartphone hackings that have led to embarrassing controversies and unwanted exposure. Whether this trend is fueled by style or a bid for privacy, there’s always the possibility it’ll leak into popular media representations of personal tech. If so, it may lead to a bit more onscreen realism. And, however unintentional, increased cultural inclusion.

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