by Judith Williamson
Earlier this year Facebook launched its first UK advertising campaign, titled 'Friends' and spanning a range of media from TV to posters, magazines and newspapers. The ad shown here is a typical example of the current print version. Most of the page is left blank, apart from the 'f' logo at the bottom, and the substance of the ad is a letterbox shape modelled on the box with a tick and the word 'Friends' which appears on the Facebook interface when you click on a 'friend'. It is essentially the click-box blown up large, with a group of 'friends' illustrated inside it.
The images in this series have a key element in common: all show specifically physical affection, and/or friends engaged together in a physical activity. The ad here shows both: a group of men hugging and friendly-punching each other at what seems to be the end of a ball game. They are almost intertwined in close bodily contact, the kind of rough-and-tumble affection that footballers or rugby players traditionally engage in with their team after a match. One man at the left of the picture is embracing another, and the two on the right (one of whom is just shown as an arm) are patting and joshing the smiling man in the centre. There is at least one black player, which gives the warmth pictured between the men an especially positive connotation.
Different ads in the series present groups of all races and ages, with a conscious air of inclusivity in the vein of Benetton or Coca-cola ads. A recent example shows a group of black middle-aged women, and a few men, holding hands joyfully in a swimming pool. In another current ad, a black woman in a leotard - a ballet teacher? - holds the hand of a white girl as she tries to balance in a dance class, both of them laughing.
Other scenes of physicality show girls giggling underwater at a pool, men moving a heavy sofa, boys play-fighting and tumbling in a park. The three TV ads in the campaign show friends dancing together, friends eating together, friends jumping into a pool, cutting each other's hair, skateboarding, playing a piano duet, driving precariously in a car, running in the rain. These ads' voice-over meditations on friendship ("They make our lives a little different. Leave us a little bit changed") also highlight aspects of material intimacy - the 'girlfriends' ad even gushes about "the handwriting we know by heart", illustrated on the screen by pages of handwritten letters!
Among these images of bodily closeness and handwritten expression there is not one picture of anyone sitting alone at a computer or on their tablet or mobile, tapping the keypad. Yet that, in essence, is what Facebook activity is. There is an inverse relation between the time anyone has to engage in real-world activities and the time they have to spend online looking at pictures, sending messages or 'liking' or 'unliking' things (and people). Facebook's campaign draws on the world of robust physical relationships as a means to advertise its online world, which is represented in the ads simply by the box with the tick and 'Friends' on it. Superimposing this interface on the photographic image of 'real friends' makes it appear transparent, a window into the real friend situation. A lack of clarity in the image itself contributes to this sense: in the example here the light is behind the men, unlike in a 'deliberate' photo, and the way their figures are cut off by the frame suggests this is just a glimpse into the wider reality of the scene. Picturing the world of physical closeness not just within, but 'behind' or 'through' the frame of the click-box, suggests that Facebook's interface is the means of reaching that world.
There is much more that could be said about how Facebook's language and structure shapes people's experiences and expectations of relationships. But to stay with the element of its format present in these ads - the use of the tick is bizarre in the context of friendship as it implies checking off a list. Facebook is strikingly list and number oriented: where else in adult life would you count your 'friends' or 'followers'? There is something of the playground even in the use of the word 'friends' in the plural: whether you are 'friends' with someone is a major issue for schoolchildren but in later life people are usually just a friend, and there is no need to emphasise the status of being 'friends'.
The online focus on lists and numbers is paradoxical in the light of these ads' emphasis on the physical, as there is a limit to the number of people one can be physically close to. A great many online 'friends' may rarely or indeed never meet - a fact denied by the photos of buddies tumbling about together. Facebook's ads suggest an intimacy that conflicts with its emphasis on collecting large numbers of 'friends', while the physical interactions pictured in them cannot in any case be experienced through screen space.
Facebook's actual relation to the material world is very problematic. Its tax avoidance is well documented: the company paid only £4,327 corporation tax last year despite finding £35m for a bonus scheme. It has also emerged that in 2012 Facebook collaborated in research that involved manipulating 689,000 users' pages, withholding their friends' negative or positive postings to see the effect on users' moods as shown in their own posts. Unsurprisingly, withholding positive postings had a negative effect, and vice versa. The entire 'research' project was undertaken without Facebook users' knowledge. This extraordinarily underhand and unethical manoeuvre seems to have had little effect on Facebook use generally. The pull of its interface seems more powerful than political knowledge about its dealings.
As with car ads which rely on images of the natural world their product helps destroy, so Facebook's advertising uses images of people's physical bonds which are the opposite of the virtual contact it offers, and of human friendship which its system of ticks and likes - with or without manipulation - can only infantilise.