Holly Brockwell is unimpressed by the sexist advertising for the gold folding phone launched by Pablo Escobar's brother, but is not surprised.
Like most people, when I saw the Escobar Fold 1 I thought it was a hoax. But as with many new products in tech, the gold-coloured folding phone bearing the monogram of notorious deceased drug king Pablo Escobar turned out to be as real as it is baffling.
Created by Pablo's brother Roberto, the phone looks a lot like a rebranded version of the Royole Flexpai from 2018. That's not surprising – hardly any manufacturers have managed to get a functional folding phone to market, so it would be quite the event if a former drug accountant managed to beat them to it.
Oddly, the Escobar Fold 1 – intriguingly named as if it'll be the first in a series of cartel-themed smartphones – is offered for sale at just $349 (about £266) for the 128GB version, whereas the Flexpai and other folding phones cost a grand each. It's not clear how the Fold 1 is so much cheaper, but perhaps Royole gave Roberto a good deal on a bunch of unsold stock. We probably wouldn't negotiate too hard with him, either.
However, the most interesting thing about the Fold 1 isn't the price or the, "celebrity" endorsement – it's the advertising. As you might expect for a gaudy gold phone displaying a greyscale photo of a deceased criminal, the marketing materials have been firmly aimed at men.
Promotional photos and videos feature a single handset (do they only have one?) shared between lingerie-clad glamour models who stroke it seductively against their bare skin while pulling faces of crazed ecstasy. One of the videos features a woman entirely naked except for some tape barely covering her nipples. The tape, of course, has Pablo Escobar emblazoned across it.
As you might expect for a gaudy gold phone displaying a greyscale photo of a deceased criminal, the marketing materials have been firmly aimed at men
Somewhat reassuringly, the reaction to the marketing has been pretty negative, with lots of people (yes, including straight men) complaining that it's reductive and sexist. Dezeen commenters were outraged that the promotional material had been published. But I can't help feeling that if there hadn't been such a strong feminist backlash against macho and misogynist practices in the tech industry over the last few years, this is how a lot of its products would be promoted.
The truth is that sadly, despite its abundant genius and genuine innovation, tech isn't very good at selling its wares, and has fallen back on sexist stereotypes many, many times to compensate. We've been repeatedly let down by genuinely good products nonetheless marketed like sex toys, and it's only when public dissent got too loud to ignore that those habits started to change.
If the big tech companies didn't have PR and legal specialists warning them off, would they still be above the Blurred Lines approach? Would booth babes have been (mostly) dropped, and Mad Men-style ads (mostly) phased out? Having seen and heard what goes on behind the scenes at some of those companies, I very much doubt it. There's often still an attitude of "you can't get away with anything anymore", with a wistful sigh for the glory days of b*tches and blow. The sexist advertising for the Escobar phone is everything tech wishes it could still get away with.
The thing is, though, "sex sells" is bullshit when it comes to tech. Sexist advertising just doesn't work. Obviously it turns off anyone with class and taste, but also it does absolutely nothing to convince you of the virtues of the product. If it was good, why would they need to sink so low? When it's so easy to directly compare specs, features and innovations across brands, why would you need to distract us with boobs unless your product will fail the comparison?
Sex sells is bullshit when it comes to tech. Sexist advertising just doesn't work
The daft thing about using this approach for the Escobar phone in particular is that foldable phones are genuinely cool, not many people outside the tech industry are aware of them yet, and there are lots of positive points you could make honestly. You just don't need to plumb those depths.
In fact, even for macho advertising, the Escobar Fold 1 campaign lacks imagination. You've got a phone that folds up like a wallet being sold with the name of a drug dealer – lots of fertile ground there, surely? Or something about being "flexible" with the rules. Even if you were insistent on going down the naked ladies route, you could do better: the Flexpai lends itself perfectly to being "the centrefold phone", if not something even more explicit involving the opening of two halves...!
That's not to say that associating a phone with drug dealing is necessarily a bad idea. The Huawei Mate S got a lot of attention back in 2015 for having the ability to weigh small amounts of material directly on its screen. But of course Huawei chose to simply demonstrate the amazing new tech involved and let us decide for ourselves what we'd use it for – a much subtler approach that doesn't assume anything negative about its customers.
Even for macho advertising, the Escobar Fold 1 campaign lacks imagination
All of which leads me to ask, who IS the target customer for the Escobar Fold? I can't help picturing someone like "pharma bro" Martin Shkreli, currently in prison for fraud. Roberto Escobar can of course relate – he was released from jail in 2004, eleven years after his brother was killed in a shootout with the Colombian police.
Olof Gustafsson, CEO of Escobar Inc, tells Dezeen that he and the company "believe we can beat Apple". Considering Apple hasn't even hinted at a foldable phone, it's not clear what they're going to beat it at. Escobar Inc overtaking them as the biggest company in the world doesn't seem likely anytime soon. Tech has its own kinds of cartels, and they're tricky to topple even for established brands.
Gustafsson goes on to say that "Roberto Escobar, just like his brother Pablo, has always wanted the best". That's surprising too, considering that the Royole Flexpai isn't the best or most prestigious folding phone made so far. Also the Escobar Fold 1 bafflingly comes with a horrible brown leather-look case reminiscent of the awful LG G4.
Not only does the case cover up the yellow gold phone fascia and its ugly PE monogram – one of the only things that sets it apart from the main Flexpai – it isn't even real leather. It's polymer, essentially plastic. Not very gangster, is it?
Tech has its own kinds of cartels, and they're tricky to topple even for established brands
The apps on the phone aren't, either. Obviously, using Android means you're tied into the generally legit apps on the Google Play Store, but there are still better choices for wannabe narcos than those shown in the pictures. You'd be taking some big risks as a cartel leader using the native Android texting and calling apps, and Facebook-owned WhatsApp – surely Signal would have been a better choice.
Taken together, the design and marketing choices strongly suggest the phone is not actually intended for drug dealers. Rather it is aimed at those who want to be associated with the lifestyle, like white collar workers who spend their weekends blasting hip-hop from speakers they got in the mystery aisle at Lidl.
For the final verdict on the handset, though, we turn once again to its own promotional materials. They boldly proclaim that Escobar Inc's phone: "Is always ready to fold!" We suspect this new tech brand won't be far behind.