Even advertisers are telling you to get off your smartphone

Heineken promoted its Boring Phone at a party during Milan Design Week. HEINEKEN
Heineken promoted its Boring Phone at a party during Milan Design Week. HEINEKEN


Heineken last month introduced the ‘Boring Phone’. With an ability to make calls and send texts, but under no circumstances access social media, it's designed to be a portal back to the days when people would socialize in person without continually maintaining parallel lives on the internet.

Heineken last month introduced what it calls the Boring Phone, an early-00s style flip-to-answer- device featuring a keypad, flashlight, FM radio, low-resolution camera and not much else. With an ability to make calls and send texts, but under no circumstances access social media, the phone is designed to be a portal back to the days when people would socialize in person without continually maintaining parallel lives on the internet.

“Young generations are craving release from their smartphones and the constant buzzing and dinging, especially on nights out and during social occasions," said Nabil Nasser, global head of the Heineken brand. “We want to give them the freedom to discover that there is more to their social life when they are less on their phone."

The Boring Phone is really a marketing campaign disguised as a product drop, with only 5,000 units available via giveaways, part of a wave of advertising tapping the widespread fear technology is ruining our ability to fully experience and enjoy the real world.

Tequila brand Jose Cuervo last year ran a sweepstakes for hundreds of its own so-called dumb phones, in another example, urging drinkers to “go off" their smartphones to “go off" in real life. This year’s Super Bowl ad by web design company Squarespace imagined what would happen if nobody noticed an alien arrival because humanity wouldn’t look up from its screens.

The message extends beyond borders. Chinese electronics firm Oppo last December ran a campaign encouraging consumers across Asia to put down their phones at the dinner table.

The advertisers are tapping into a concern over the role of technology in society, and particularly in the mental health of young people, that has grown as social media and smartphones have become omnipresent. Even Snapchat is running an ad campaign positioning its social-media app as an “antidote to social media."

But marketing executives are treading gently, tending toward humor rather than activism, partly because their brands are at least as present in the digital world as any extremely online person. They advertise on the same social-media platforms that their campaigns suggest absorb too much of consumers’ time. Meta Platforms, the owner of Instagram and Facebook, generated $36.5 billion in revenue in the first quarter of this year, up 27% from the period a year earlier, almost entirely from advertising.

“We’re obviously not anti-tech, but what we do know is that consumers want to detox from their smartphones to dial up their social life and enjoy real world connections," Heineken’s Nasser said. The Boring Phone campaign isn’t designed to get people buying more beer by leaving them twiddling their thumbs at the bar, but to more indirectly bolster the brand’s association with the joy of socializing, he said.

Advertisers’ touch-grass campaigns represent a broader shift in the industry, away from an always-sunny and aspirational style of marketing and toward an acceptance of a grimmer reality.

The economy may be improving, but consumers remain gloomy. The U.S. dropped off the list of the world’s 20 happiest countries, and news of global conflicts and inflammatory politics at home is compounded by everyday annoyances, from the shrinking lifespan of refrigerators to concert tickets’ hidden fees.

Marketers—who spend millions of dollars “listening" to the moods of consumers to refine their messages—can no longer tell consumers that everything is awesome. Instead, they’re leaning into the fact it isn’t.

Celebrating tech can be dicey in this environment, even for companies typically lionized for their accomplishments in the field. Apple this month apologized for an ad that depicted the literal crushing of art supplies and musical instruments to yield a thinner-than-ever iPad.

“Marketers don’t want to be seen as out of touch, and saying, ‘Buy this and your life’s going to be amazing,’ because they know that the default where people are coming from is that things feel worse than they did 20 years ago," said Lucy Jameson, co-founder of advertising and design agency Uncommon Creative Studio. Middle-class families, one of marketers’ most-coveted consumer groups, are particularly worried by the rise of tech use and the mental-health problems it might cause among children and teenagers, she said.

“If it’s at the top of their concerns, then you’re going to see loads and loads of brands start to play into it," especially among companies who rely on people socializing, dating and otherwise going outside into the real world, Jameson said.

Brands are also leaning into the tech use conversation to connect with Gen Z, a huge consumer group known for a lack of brand loyalty and a biting awareness of how growing up online has affected them. Companies who align themselves with Gen Z’s anxieties around their phones can improve their chances of winning them over as customers, marketing executives say.

“It just dawned on us that his group is feeling a disproportionate sense of loneliness and isolation, and really the root cause of that is the lack of time spent in person," said Jackie Jantos, the chief marketing officer of dating app Hinge. “I think we all know what that time has been displaced by."

Hinge at the end of last year began its latest push to get young people to put down their phones and hang out in person under the marketing banner of “One More Hour." The company promised as part of the campaign to donate $1 million to social clubs in Atlanta, Los Angeles, and New York City that provide Gen Z with opportunities to connect in-person.

Hinge also published a physical book of things to do without a screen in time for the annual “Global Day of Unplugging" in March. Suggestions include birdwatching, reading, and “lying in a park doing nothing."

Hinge mailed 4,000 copies of its offline-activity book, which it designed to resemble an iPhone, for free to users. The website promoting the book says there are no more left, but “you can still download/read an online version."

Write to Katie Deighton at katie.deighton@wsj.com

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