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Fantasies of Mobile Media's Utopic Ideal: Connectivity in ESPN & CENTEL Commercials

by Ethan Tussey

by Scott W. Ruston for IN MEDIA RES

A tool I use as a means of analyzing mobile media and distinguishing mobile from other media and cultural forms is the concept of affordances. Here I explore connectivity as it is imagined through two mobile phone service advertisements.

The ESPN "Sports Heaven" commercial implies, based on the man's near constant gaze affixed to his mobile phone while surround by sports activities, that his phone has transformed the urban street-scape into a vast sports-scape. He is deeply and thoroughly connected to his sports universe through his ESPN phone. The commercial's title and voice over narration, positions this kind of connectivity, this connection to vast amounts of sports data, as a utopic ideal.

The CENTEL commercial (circa 1989), ostensibly the first US television commercial advertising personal cellular phone service, presents a very different, yet also utopic, imagination of what mobile connectivity offers. Throughout the husband/father character's journey from the city to the idyllic world of the countryside (complete with pleasure boats and picturesque sunsets), the mobile phone facilitates the family's rendezvous. The wife/mother character guides the man towards her domain (directions at fork in the road); she shares his experience of the unexpected delay (sheep crossing); and he finally summons her upon arrival at the dock. In this vision, connectivity is more social and family-oriented, not to mention laden with connotations of wealth and leisure.

In their visualizations of an ideal, each commercial differs in its gendering of this notion of connectivity. In the CENTEL commercial, the telephone bridges the city/work domain of the man and the remote/leisure/family domain of the woman, a pattern common in cinema since the rescue melodramas of Griffith and Porter. "Sports Heaven", though, offers only two female athletes and one bikini-clad boxing ring girl amid a vast array of male athletes. This not only perpetuates a common and gendered representation of sports in the United States, but also simultaneously genders this vision of connectivity as male. In the former, it's a social connectivity (frequently understood as female); it's family cohesion (and leisure) facilitated by mobile technology. In the latter, it's about data and connection to a particular cultural milieu--decidedly not about people. We have a people-to-people connectivity and a people-to-data connectivity, but both are positioned as a fantasy ideal, bringing to mind reports of increased loneliness in our age of hyper-connectivity. (Oh, yeah, and both CENTEL Cellular and ESPN Mobile are now defunct.)

Mobile ESPN and CENTEL commercials

mobile connectivity

from commercial (1989)
Creator: ESPN Mobile and CENTEL
Posted by Ethan Tussey