A smartphone is a technological wonder. Where we used to require discrete tools, services, or information sources to live our lives, we now have one device to rule them all. From one little handset, people can talk, text, source information, play games, track locations, find our friends, stalk our domestic partners so that they can be punished when they run afoul of arbitrary and terrorizing rules . . . wait. What?
While most people use their phones to enhance their lives, a new spot from Interval House reveals that, for many victims of domestic abuse, a simple phone is something to be feared. To mark the 40th anniversary and raise awareness of the Canadian women’s shelter, Toronto agency UNION subverted an incredibly familiar form of visual communication: an iPhone commercial.
By now, everyone knows the tone and tenor of a new-model spot from Apple. White background, happy-go-lucky music, hands gleefully swiping through the latest and greatest apps. “Phone Demo” starts out that way. “With our new phone, you can see who she’s called,” says the voice-over as a flipping finger selects the phone’s call history. Okay, so it’s a bit specific for the Apple iPhone canon, and then it continues: “Who she’s seen . . . ,” as the hand scans through photos. When the voice, now sinister, declares, “It can even tell you when that lying bitch isn’t at the grocery store like she said she’d be,” it’s very clear that something many of us take for granted each day also enables abusers to control their domestic partners in ways that no one can see, often preventing them from seeking out the help they might need out of fear of a watchful eye.
UNION partner and executive creative director Lance Martin says the revelation that cell phones are being used as a form of mental abuse wasn’t immediately apparent. Interval House engaged the agency to build awareness to help with its upcoming fundraising campaign. To better understand what the shelter did, the creative team visited Interval House. It was through talking with women and workers that they gained an understanding of how mobile technology has become a new weapon used in the power structure between abuser and victim.
“When we started, like a lot of people, we only knew a tiny bit about domestic abuse. You know it’s out there, but you don’t really know many details about it. So we went down to Interval House to immerse ourselves, and they told us some of the happy stories and some of the horrible stories,” says Martin. “Through that conversation, they started talking about abuse and they said the violence is only a part of it. There’s a huge controlling kind of abuse that happens now with women. They talked about smartphones and how it starts very small, like someone saying ‘text me a when you get there.’ Then they’ll have to take a picture to prove they’re where they say they are. We heard stories of women getting home and their husbands would literally stand at the door and check the cell to see that they did what they said they did, that there are no photos of anyone they’re not supposed to be seeing. There are even things as extreme as using GPS or Find My Phone to see where someone’s been by monitoring the phone by laptop.”
Since this technology is having such a negative impact on so many lives, Martin says they hit on the idea of using the iPhone’s popularity and familiarity to deliver a difficult message.
“That this was happening really struck us, and we were trying to find a way to bring this to people without showing an abused woman, which people ignore now. People want to pretend this isn’t happening so we thought this bait and switch would get people to pay attention,” says Martin. “People are so tied to their phone and they’re such a ubiquitous part of our life, to highlight that they’re not always used for good was an interesting angle for us to bring attention to Interval House.”
This isn’t the first time UNION has found a way to successfully draw attention to a largely invisible issue. Earlier this year, it launched Every Second Counts, a simple online clock that illustrated that every second in Canada, a woman is affected by domestic abuse.
For now “Phone Demo” is intended for online viewing–using the word bitch clearly wouldn’t pass muster with the TV censors–but that might be for the better. Taking that line out would dampen the power of combining a cheery convention with a troubling message. “The words hit you with that very hard bitch line,” says Martin. “Now you’re paying attention to the message that the technology has changed, but the problem hasn’t.”