Why Do Consumers Increasingly Want to Be Less Connected, Not More?

Horizon Media finds growing desire to unplug

With New York and other cities embracing the concept of the "smart city," making free Wi-Fi available anytime, anywhere, many consumers are looking to get less connected to their fellow urban dwellers, not more.

Horizon Media's Kirk Olson and Sheri Roder have been tracking this trend for some time. Olson, vp of Horizon's TrendSights practice, and Roder, chief of its WHY Group, observe that a wave of consumers are disconnecting from their digital devices in a quest for more authentic connections with others, more privacy and a sense of personal identity.

While the pair have noticed the trend for years, it really started to take hold over the last six months. "The incredible penetration of smartphones in the U.S. was probably the biggest tipping point," says Olson. "Most people have had smartphones for a while now, but I think people had to kind of live with them for a while and internalize all the effects the phones have on one's life before they felt this itch to return to a more disconnected life."

Olson and Roder point to a list of innovations this desire for disconnection has wrought.

There are now adult sleep-away camps that mandate a digital-free environment. One is Camp Grounded, which has locations from New York to Northern California and offers features like typewriters, stargazing, sweat lodges and gourmet cuisine. Then, there are mobile apps like SelfControl, which lets the user create a "blacklist" of distracting websites and apps he or she can block for a given period of time.

Advertisers are reacting to the trend—including some for which the concept of unplugging would seem anathema.

AT&T's recent "Present of Being Present" campaign encouraged consumers to have real, face-to-face experiences during the holiday season. "We're seeing that people really love their phones, but many are craving a digital detox," explains Meredith Vincent, executive advertising director at AT&T Mobility.

The campaign ran for just two days on television and Facebook. And yet, Vincent says, "it made a very big impact in a short period of time, which speaks to how relevant this message is." The campaign produced more than 19 million video views, according to the ad exec.

Another campaign, "Take Back Your Morning," from health system Dignity Health, had a similar message, featuring scenes like a father laser-focused on his smartphone as his kid begs for his attention. The campaign, which ran across Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, got 1.5 million video views, 11 million earned impressions and major social shares, according to Mark Viden, vp, brand marketing at Dignity Health.

The promotion was inspired by a survey commissioned by the health system revealing that consumers check their mobile devices an average of 134 times each day.

No wonder people want to hang up the phone.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 15 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

Janet Stilson is a freelance writer for Adweek.