Barricades and Blackberries: Unintentional advertising at its best

Once the white-collar criminal's weapon of choice, the London riots have democratised the Blackberry better than any ad campaign could.

The London riots could just as well have been a well-orchestrated ambient campaign for Blackberry.

The London riots, according to any number of televised bearded experts during and since those strange and violent August nights, were entirely predictable.

Vaughn DavisThe economic and social policies of the past few decades, you see, have created an underclass who see emancipation not through the ballot box, but the Xbox, along with one of them massage chairs and a couple of slab of Newcastle Brown never mind the broken glass.

What no-one predicted, though, and what leads this admittedly jetlagged columnist to question the forces behind the riots themselves, was the way they managed to make the Blackberry cool again.

Rather than standing at the barricades singing La Marseillaise, the rioters (according to media reports) tapped on their Blackberries and sent meeting requests.

Regarded here in New Zealand, and in most countries for the last few years, as the telephonic equivalent of the sales rep’s Corolla – doled out by corporate mandate but never chosen by an actual human being – the Blackberry has for a long time been as far from cool as your columnist has from thin.

Despite changes to make it more iPhone-like, and a string of seemingly stripper-inspired model names like Pearl, Bold and Storm, the handset from unfortunately named maker RIM was going backwards faster than a Dunedin motorist who’d left the chains in the boot.

All this led to something of a Blackberry surplus. When this happens with real blackberries, of course, you just make more Ribena and hope no one cares you’ve shifted the decimal point in the Vitamin C figures*.

When you’re dealing with unpopular smartphones, you drop the price and dump them on whichever market can afford to buy.

Which, about a year ago, happened to be the UK. Blackberries which only months earlier had been selling (or not selling) to Hooray Henry types in the City were now flying across the counter of your local Carphone Warehouse, propelling the handset to an unlikely number one spot among UK teens, with a 37 percent share of the smartphone market.

So when the balloon went up in August (moments, possibly, before the balloon was nicked and set alight), good numbers of what was once the world’s leading corporate mobile communication device were in the Adidas hoody pockets of Our Neil what never done good at school but knows how to have a proper wicked time of a Friday night, innit.

When not burning wheely bins, breaking windows and pushing shopping trolleys full of 3D TVs, the rioters – according to media reports – were using RIM’s secure Blackberry Messenger feature to schedule their next spell of hooliganism.

The meeting requests would have made good reading: Time (GMT+1) 6pm-7pm. Venue: Round the Back of The Tesco. Subject: Re: looting and burning – need to push forward on this agenda and poss. discuss if local initiatives ladder up to regional activity. Also review previous looting & compare to Q3 objectives. Attending: Gazza, Shifty, Lofty, Wazza and Little Gazza. Attend? Y/N

The UK Government has asked RIM for access to messages sent during the riots, and RIM has agreed to hand them over. In response to that, hacker group TeaMpOisoN took down the RIM homepage for a time. PM David Cameron is calling for suspected rioters to be blocked from BBM, Facebook and Twitter, and other voices in government are calling for the power to shut down the networks if the riots happen again. (The police, on the other hand, are all for keeping them running so they can listen in and get intel.)

All this has changed the way I think about the Blackberry. Yes, they’ve long been the white-collar criminal’s weapon of choice, but the riots in London have democratised the platform in a way no advertising campaign could. It’s shifted the brand position so much, in fact, I’ll be scouring next year’s Cannes Advertising Festival entries to see if the whole thing was, in fact, a well-orchestrated ambient campaign for Blackberry.

That really would be a riot.

* OK, it turns out Ribena’s made of blackcurrants. Told you I was jetlagged.

Vaughn Davis (@vaughndavis) is creative director and owner of advertising and social media agency business thingy the Goat Farm (

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