Aside from our phones, earphones are the next best way for any company to connect with us. They’re always with us, and in the AirPods era of “smarter” earbuds, they can hear everything we do, know where we are, and talk back to us unobstructed by annoying inconveniences like having to push a button or being stuck in a pocket, purse, or bag. They are the latest evidence of Big Tech’s race to get into our heads right through our ears.
Headphones have been a status symbol since at least the original white Apple iPod accessories, but now they’re the most underrated aspect of each major tech company ecosystem. At their best, they’re the ultimate tool of 21st-century convenience. Speak a command, and it shall be done.
At their worst, though, these earbuds are the physical manifestation of our bodies becoming one with the 21st-century surveillance economy.
The marketing of these devices, then, is forced to walk (or dance) that fine line of showing us the giddy promise of the former—without the existential threat of the latter.
On Tuesday, Google introduced its new Pixel Buds, the company’s second swing at wireless earphones, which already looks more promising than the last iteration’s awkward connection cord and packaging.
Here we get an elaborate product demo that uses graphics on the side of people’s heads to illustrate its capabilities as clearly as possible. It boasts the obvious stuff like great sound, cool style, and great fit, with a dollop of Google ubiquity tossed in for good measure. Real-time translations? Check. Compatibility with Google Assistant? Check. Google pictures you as a subway commuter who hits the gym, maybe a café afterward, taking calls anywhere and everywhere as you go, and fitting in a sports podcast when you’re not enjoying international travel or some meditative moments. “You are a tiny ship on a rolling ocean becoming one with the waves.” Daily mantra or where you fit into the company’s revenue stream? Maybe both!
Microsoft, which launched its new Surface Earbuds earlier this month, sports ear candy of a similar design to Google’s, made to stand out enough to be distinct but not scream it from the rooftops. The ad starts hard on the details of the earphones—closeups, lotta product info—and doesn’t get into the yoga, biking, and running bits until about halfway through.
Then there’s the real Microsoft kicker: the Office 365 integration. Now we’ve got power calls, PowerPoint board meetings (People! Tech! Space!), and everything in between. Cool but still khaki. Oh so khaki.
It’s a far cry from Apple’s pure emotional push for AirPods, the product that pretty much launched this whole category a few years ago.
By watching this ad you wouldn’t really know what AirPods can do, and how they work with other Apple products. But Apple also knows you don’t care about that right now. You can Google that later. Right now, what you want is to be told these are the sexiest option. Apple’s betting, as it often is, that your heart will win any argument against buying these even if your brain is open to other options. It’s telling us, this is how you will feel, and if past campaigns for everything from the original iPod to the latest iPhone are any indication, it’s pretty damn convincing.
Amazon, on the other hand, like a lot of its white-label products, just goes with the basics. The pitch here seems to be, you buy everything else from us, why kid yourself? It’s Alexa in your ears. Hey, maybe you’re a huge Samuel L. Jackson fan.
Each spot employs music, sleek design, and beautiful people to convince us these are not expensive fashion accessories, or even productivity tools, but rather a creative choice. Ace that PowerPoint presentation, glide seamlessly between cultures, connect with friends, and jazz dance through the city. They’re selling function as a fashion, while also disrupting the once-common brand marriage of earphones to phone.
With Pixel Buds, Google has a potential in with iPhone users. Same with Microsoft and Amazon. Meanwhile, Apple may nab Android loyalists with the lure of the AirPod status symbol.
The brand personality of each is crystal clear in their earbud advertising, whether it’s artsy Apple, business casual Microsoft, or the happy-go-lucky Google. It’s all there for us to make our choices. Go ahead, they’re listening.