Perspective: From Brick to Slick

Cellphones have changed a lot in 20 years, but the tactic used to sell them? That's still vintage 1988

Though Apple and the late Steve Jobs have been praised (with justification) for improving, streamlining, face-lifting and otherwise revolutionizing the cellphone, it’s only fair to note the one thing Jobs and his company did not do: invent the contraption. That honor belongs to Motorola engineer Martin Cooper, who gave the world its first commercially available cellphone in 1984: the DynaTAC 8000X, yours for only $3,995. This was the phone that would later be dubbed “the brick,” and which became famous when Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko used it in the 1987 film Wall Street.

Meanwhile, Finnish competitor Nokia was working furiously to deliver the counterpunch. It came in 1988 with the P-30, a phone that appeared in the U.S. the same year as the Radio Shack CT-301, shown in the ad at right. This nifty chunk of high tech was close to 19 inches long (including the antenna), weighed nearly two pounds and would only set you back $1,499. Go ahead, laugh.

Given the tectonic changes that have hit the cellphone market since then (2 million Americans owned cellphones back in 1988; today it’s 300 million), it’s hard to find much that’s similar about the two ads on these pages. Nevertheless, if you look past the obvious differences in technology, you might notice something interesting: The marketing psychology at work here is identical.

“Both ads are talking the exact same way to the exact same person,” said Stuart Leslie, president of design and innovation firm 4sight inc. “The key element is lifestyle. Whether it’s a golf course or a sushi restaurant, they’re nailing your aspirations and dreams.”

Let’s back up a moment. Aside from doing the necessary work of explaining what a cellphone was, the 1988 Radio Shack ad takes the critical step of inviting the reader to imagine himself using the device. The CT-301 “lets a person make or take calls at a job site, in a rental car, on a service call, or even on the golf course.” Leslie said that phrase alone lures the would-be buyer into imagining himself as the Goldfinger of his world: “This phone was the essence of cool at the time. You pull it out and everybody admires it. So you’re the guy, it’s your time, you’ve arrived. It’s brilliant marketing.”

The pitch, in other words, isn’t really about the phone; it’s about the phone as a facilitator of the sophisticated lifestyle that’s yours if you buy the phone. And that, Leslie said, is also what Apple is doing 22 years later with its ad (opposite) for the iPhone 4S.

“Apple’s focus in not on the device; it’s what’s going on in your life,” Leslie said. “It speaks directly to your emotional state: ‘Hey, I feel like sushi.’” Then Siri, the 4S’s “intelligent personal assistant” leads you to that sushi. “We all want to find a great sushi place. It’s a real-world thing,” Leslie said. Take your chums to an awesome restaurant, and you’re the man—just like you’d have been back in 1988 had you pulled our your CT-301 on the fairway. (There was just no Siri back then. Oh, and no Internet either.)

None of which means that 22 years from now, we won’t be laughing at the design of the iPhone 4S. “We absolutely will,” Leslie said. But at least it looks better than a brick.

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