The weird populism of Nextel's new ads.

Advertising deconstructed.
April 14 2009 1:50 PM

Walkie-Talkie Populism

The Nextel ads that show what life would be like if steelworkers ran the DMV.

The spot:A gruff, uniformed delivery man stands at the head of a high-school class taking attendance. A student named Callahan is discovered absent but swiftly tracked down by a SWAT team of attendance-enforcing delivery folk, who communicate with the Sprint Nextel Direct Connect walkie-talkie feature—"Drivers, I need a 20 on Callahan"—on their BlackBerry Curve 8350i phones. "Reroute him directly to detention," the teacher/delivery guy instructs once Callahan gets nabbed. The tag line "Get more work done with Nextel Direct Connect" appears on-screen.

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This is a solid entry in Sprint Nextel's "What if [blank] ran the world?" series, which portrays no-nonsense lunch-pailers using the Direct Connect service to ramp up the efficiency of bureaucratically inept institutions. The first spot featured steelworkers running a DMV, the second firefighters running a legislature, and the third rock 'n' roll roadies running an airport. ("Buckle up, dudes!") But despite this standardized conceit and a uniform style (terse dialogue and quick cuts that emphasize the fact that a number of different problems are getting solved in 30 seconds), my reactions to the four ads have varied wildly. The series is well-timed: It extols the virtues of proletarian common sense at a moment when governing elites seem to have made a hash of everything. But it also highlights the risks and rewards of trying to harness political feeling for nonpartisan purposes: It's easy to draw attention to yourself by addressing a subject that fills people with impotent rage. You just have to make sure that you don't end up turning that impotent rage on yourself.

The ads are not really meant to make a point about government, of course: Sprint Nextel and its ad agency, Goodby, Silverstein & Partners of San Francisco, just want to convince you to buy the product. The purpose of push-to-talk technology is increasing communication speed; instead of dialing a single person, you can communicate with anyone on your frequency simply by pushing a button. When you push the button, everyone else is locked out, which eliminates the possibility of crosstalk. It's technology for coordinating real-time, large-scale projects. So it makes sense that their ads would play off large-scale endeavors that are popularly thought to be badly managed.

This basic message works smoothly enough in the steelworker/DMV and roadie/airport bits, which make a simple point about technology improving the speed of procedures that most people find tedious. The target is different in the delivery-guy/high-school spot—it's not as though "lethargic pace of truancy enforcement" ranks high on most people's list of frustrations, and typically we as a popular culture sympathize with class-cutters rather than their pursuers. But the ad still works as a tongue-in-cheek scenario: Efficiency has definitely been increased, if not in a way we'd all like.

The real impotent-rage inducer is the spot featuring a mass of sooty, fully uniformed firemen gathered in a legislative chamber. The chief picks up a gavel, and the assembly proceeds decisively through a legislative agenda:

Chief: "Anyone want better roads?"
Firefighters: "WE DO!"
Chief: "All in favor?"
Firefighters: "AYE."
Chief: "Opposed?" (silence) (gavel) "DONE!"

The session wraps up quickly. "This is the easiest job I've ever had," smirks the chief. "We're outta here!"

Now, I live in New York, home of firefighters who are justly renowned for their bravery and a state Legislature that is justly renowned for its staggering dysfunctionality. I think I paid 55 percent of my salary last year in state income taxes, and the last I heard the subway is being replaced by a barter-based system of donkey rides. But this ad is strangely galling nonetheless, because its logic falls apart so quickly. Isn't it actually the government's failure to haggle over details that causes so many of our problems? Here's the fireman legislature's take on an environmental bill: " 'Lots of paper to tell us we need clean water. Need clean water, guys?' 'AYE!' " These guys just don't seem like they would have dug into the details of mortgage regulation, credit-default swaps, or FEMA oversight (and let's not even get started on their likely insensitivity to women's issues). In fact, if the heroes of these commercials are supposed to be paragons of no-bullshit efficiency, why are they communicating via Sprint Nextel Direct Connect despite being in the same room together? Which fireman subcommittee authorized the purchase of all those walkie-talkies? In this ad, Sprint Nextel's crowd-pleasing formula is mangled; the spot is a polemic against the idea that government should involve reading, writing, and discussion.

And, really, regardless of what side of the current political debate you fall on, one thing you probably don't think is that it's a good time for Americans and their elected representatives to spend less time thinking about the details of governing. The lesson for advertisers is simple: If your ad identifies a problem, make it one that's banal, broad, and portrayed in a sufficiently exaggerated manner that everyone can agree on it. (Lampooning the government without propagating any particular worldview isn't impossible—NBC just launched an entire show, Parks and Recreation, dedicated to that proposition.) And as long as mankind exists, the vein of universally aggravating institutions shouldn't run dry: If Goodby, Silverstein doesn't have a fifth installment in the works about a team of EMTs that takes over a tech-support hotline, I'd be happy to write it for them.

Grade: B (for the truancy spot). Well-executed and charming, although I would like to see a sequel in which the kids wise up with their own walkie-talkie-coordinated escape and then spend an awesome skip day drinking Mountain Dew and doing whatever it is kids do these days—Twittering naked pictures of themselves onto the Xbox chat room and what have you.

Ben Mathis-Lilley edits the Slatest. Follow @Slatest on Twitter.

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