Verizon doesn't exactly have a reputation for being an organization that's empowering its users. After all, it is Verizon that's leading the fight against net neutrality, which would amount to an Internet that is basically the opposite of user-friendly. Perhaps that's why they've launched a new ad campaign designed to convince us that, through powerful transmitters, Verizon is on our side in the fight against prejudice. (I know, right?)
This campaign is worth discussing for many reasons. First of all, it's clearly hypocritical, since Verizon's whole jam lately has been to try and take control away from users by fighting net neutrality. Second, the slogan here, "Rule the air," just flat-out doesn't make sense. Are they trying to sell us air? Aren't we technically supposed to own those already? (I get that they are selling cell phones, obviously, but I still don't like the slogan.) Third, this campaign is co-opting the tenets of feminism and other social justice movements in order to get us to equate Verizon's cell reception with fighting oppression. Notice the use of anti-oppression rhetoric about fighting prejudice and refusing to be silenced—what exactly does this have to do with cell phones, again?
This whole "empower yourself by embracing our brand" idea is nothing new, of course. (If you want to read more on that topic, Naomi Klein's No Logo includes a great discussion about the way big corporations appropriate rebellion in order to increase customer loyalty.) However, Verizon is taking things to a level of faux-empowerment I've rarely seen. Their billboards feature women and people of color, and include language about being powerful and strong. I couldn't find the one I've seen on I-5 that shows a young black woman shouting, but I did find this one on the right so that you could see what I mean. See? She's a young, strong, Latina woman who is exercising her right to express herself... by using a Verizon cell phone. You know, the very company who is trying to rig things so that people like her have to pay more for better Internet access.
Another aspect of this campaign that irks me—and probably makes it more effective, sadly—is the interactivity. Not only does Verizon want you to associate self-expression and empowerment with their particular brand of corporate cell phones, they are cementing that association by encouraging you to "create your own signal." Develop a signal as unique as you are and share it with the world, reads the copy. Then you are encouraged to upload a photo of yourself and choose one of several pre-written "unique" taglines to accompany the photo. The end result looks something like this screenshot (I used a photo of my dog Edith, who doesn't care much for cell phones):
Again, this type of rhetoric is not surprising. However, the fact that this particular campaign is coming from Verizon, and that it appears to be targeting mainly marginalized populations (people of color, women, young people) makes it stand out even in the sea of corporatized "empowerment." Does Verizon think that if they appeal to people who long to have the freedom to express themselves without prejudice that they can make us forget that they are working to take those freedoms away? Also, why are they trying to sell us air? If air is truly free, why do we need Verizon to market it to us? I think the answer is simple: we don't.
This project was made possible in part by a grant from Oregon Humanities (OH), a statewide nonprofit organization and an independent affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, which funds OH's grant program.