The latest iPhone commercials, featuring actors Samuel L. Jackson, John Malkovich and Zooey Deschanel, are entertaining enough — if you enjoy watching people talking to themselves. Sure, Apple seems to be pushing the technological wonders of its smartphone, but the subtler message may be more disturbing.
In an ad called "Date Night," Jackson tells Siri, which plays the part of his personal digital assistant: "Find me a store that sells organic mushrooms for my risotto." The phone displays a map as Siri's metallic, female voice replies, "This organic market looks pretty close to you."
The friendly interrogation continues. "How many ounces in a cup?" (We all must have missed that day in school.) "This might answer your question," Siri says as the information shows up on the iPhone screen. "I knew that," Jackson says. (Sure you did, Sam.)
The ever-quirky Deschanel, who seems to be more and more of a self-parody every time we see her, plays herself in another iPhone ad. "Is that rain?" she asks Siri, even though the answer is obvious. "Yes, it appears to be raining," the disembodied voice answers. Then Siri helps the pajamas-wearing actress find places to get tomato soup delivered.
In a third commercial, Malkovich, one of the greatest English-language actors, can only seem to speak in one-word sentences. (Perhaps his minimalist dialogue is a requirement because Siri is still in beta and anything more complicated would cause her to melt down.)
Malkovich being Malkovich, lounging in his comfy chair, utters these question words in order: "Weather." "Evening." "Linguica." "Joke." Siri does her best to accommodate him, answering with the forecast, his schedule, places to eat Portuguese smoked sausage and the beginning of a funny story that leaves Malkovich in stitches: "Two iPhones walk into a bar. I forget the rest."
The overt message of these TV ads is obvious: By the command of your voice, Siri can help you with the mundane tasks of everyday life.
But there's also a troubling subtlety to them. All three of the actors appear to be alone at home, with no one but Siri to talk to. Is Apple implying we're all alone — and technology is all we need to live our isolated lives?
A blogger named Dr. Drang thinks so. In a post called "The long dark night of Siri," he writes:
"You'd think the common thread among these ads would be 'Wow, iPhone and Siri are awesome!' but it's actually 'Wow, these celebrities are really sad and lonely!' With no other humans in their lives, they spend their solitary hours talking into a slab of glass. Malkovich clearly believes that no one understands him as well as Siri does. And Zooey Deschanel, refusing to leave her house, is one step away from Norma Desmond territory: 'I am big—it's the ukuleles that got small!'
"'Wait,' you say, 'Samuel L. Jackson isn't lonely. He's making a romantic dinner for date night.' Really? I'm not buying it. My guess is that he gives Siri the night off so she never learns that he spent the night sitting in his kitchen, silently crying into his risotto."
In a post at Memeburn called "John Malkovich uses Siri and it's kinda creepy," Stuart Thomas writes:
"We're not sure about anyone else, [the] ads just made us cringe with embarrassment. What has Malkovich's life amounted to that he sits around in a big lounge talking to his iPhone all day?
Come to think of it, Apple's other recent ads, starring Zooey Deschanel and Samuel L. Jackson didn't exactly portray them as social butterflies either. Screw Siri's features, Apple is trying to tell us that Hollywood celebrities are desperately lonely!"
A user named motoleo on the iMore iPhone forums agrees:
"Siri is for lonely people. It would be kind of weird for several people to be using Siri at the same time..."
So Apple must be betting that enough of us are feeling lonesome that we'll spring for an iPhone because Siri will talk to us even when no one else is around.
Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.