Seamless, Foursquare, and New Appeal of Urban Isolation

Zipcar wants, with original emphasis, to be “the official vehicle of ‘get your stuff OUT OF MY APARTMENT.’” What a strange aspiration for one’s product: to be the emblem and vector of loss. You too, the car-sharing company promises, may need us one day—may be like this sad, greasy- haired and clean-shirted young man, in an armchair forlorn on the pavement. You too may find your electric guitar sail- ing out of the window, flung by your girlfriend, your shirts on the railing, your shoes on the sidewalk, your TV smashed and your lampshade upended—and this, when it happens, will be one of those times when “you just need a car.” To this, Zipcar says: We embrace you. We will be waiting when everything falls. In the ad where the man sits, his head in his hand, in an old chair in front of a storage unit, the back of a Zipvan looms white from the side of the frame, half in and half out of the picture. It’s pointed to drive away. And it dwarfs the man and his boxes. His place at the center of the image only spotlights his insignificance. You don’t want to be him. And yet you really want to drive that car.

Among the “six important types of brand-building feelings” that Kevin Lane Keller lists in the SAGE Hand- book of Advertising—warmth, fun, excitement, security, social approval, and self-respect—a sense of lonely, guilty humiliation is nowhere implied. This man on the curb, whose relationship is over (he’s getting kicked out; it was probably his fault) is a version of our- selves we’d prefer to forget. Yet Zipcar not only reminds us of our loneliness, but latches on to that feeling, converting it into something to feel good about: a selling point, a joke. This cheerful pessimism (not to call it callousness) about human relationships is in line with contemporary video ads streaming on- line and on air for brands like T-Mobile and Kotex, which compare viewers’ use of a product—a phone, a data service, a tampon—to a romantic relationship, and encourage them to “break up.” In one of these, following the release of the iPhone 6, the voice of a man’s iPhone 5 pleaded with him not to leave her all the way to the Verizon store.

But there’s something special about the subway ad, aimed at a squashed, trapped, exhausted audience in New York, where roughly a million people live alone. Zipcar, Seamless, and the personal search engine app Foursquare are part of a recent spate of tech companies promoting themselves with what AdWeek calls “old-school” out-of-home ads—and using the unlikely feeling of loneliness to do it. The campaigns play on the urban commuter’s experience of isolation within a crowd, propelling their messages by force of the viewers’ own frustration. Traditional emotion-based advertising, researchers write, works by offering viewers transcendence, seeking to “propel the features of the product into an inspired madness,” or “transport the recipient into a world of imagi- nation.” These new ads, in contrast, ground themselves in recognizable reality—even a reality that isn’t wholly appealing. “The real world is not perfect,” photographer Ty Milford, who shot Zipcar’s 2013 campaign, told the Photo District News. Explaining his “spontaneous,” Instagram-inspired aesthetic, he added,“I want to see some flaws that just help the viewer, even subconsciously, feel like the imagery is real.”

It’s in this vein that Seamless, the food delivery service, presents you with the following: You are single and childless, and live alone with an oven that you use mainly for storage in a seventh-floor walkup that makes even the thought of leaving the apartment to buy food exhausting. Most of your interactions take place over technology: friends are those people you delete “after their 529th invite to Candy Crush,” or who gave “your post about ordering at 4 a.m. … more likes than your relationship status change.” You often desire, when “your friend calls and you know they’re gonna be dramatic for hours,” to get food delivered, so you’ll have something to do while pretending to listen. Indeed, your “fa- vorite part of having a smartphone is never having to talk to anyone.” Sex is more about outcome than intimacy, and you have no steady partner, but at least, thanks to Seamless, “you’ve perfected the art of getting to third base faster: Food Delivery Date Night.” Food is what’s real in your life, what is sensual, the only physical constant. You are lonely, longing, hungry. It is time to order takeout.


The new Foursquare learns what you like and leads you to places you’ll love.


Foursquare, for its part, is more ambivalent about hopes for social connection. The company, which began as a way of checking in with friends at restaurants and other locations, recently relegated this job to an app called Swarm and isolated its personalized search function, reinventing itself as the service that “learns what you like and leads you to places you’ll love.” This app’s first advertising campaign hit subways in October 2014 with photographs of pairs of people in public spaces, personal check- lists of their tastes floating in pink bubbles over their heads. In one of these, two men sit side by side at a shoeshine stand, engaged in conversation. Though their clothes and ages mark them as strangers—how often does a young hipster go out with an elderly aesthete?— their postures mirror each other; leaning forward with knees spread and shoes planted firmly, they seem to be trying to find common ground. Their two pairs of shoes even match. They are close to making some kind of connection. Yet their hands, raised in nearly identical gestures, are pointing in different directions, and as the search terms above them show, they don’t have that much to talk about. It’s kale shakes versus kobe steaks, art house films versus art museums, orange bitters versus duck a l’orange. The means of communication they hold—a smartphone and a newspaper—belong to two different eras; they might as well be speaking two different languages. Neither can know what the other is looking for.

That’s the only image of the campaign’s four that shows an attempt at connection. The others merely show strangers: two women (toffee versus tofu) with their backs turned to one another, each one engaged in her own thoughts as they pass in a park without looking. Two transit passengers (chili cheese fries versus Chilean sea bass) face forward, blank-faced and uncomfortably close; his football face paint matches the colors of her makeup, though neither of them can see it. Even the two women, apparently identical twin sisters, sharing a taxi have nothing in common: as one of them giggles at something outside the frame (expect this of a girl who likes jukeboxes), the other (she likes DJs) gives a slight roll of her eyes, smiling tolerantly. “Everyone’s tastes are different,” reads Foursquare’s website. “So why should we get the same search results?” You say martinis, I say margaritas. Let’s call the whole thing off.

Cacioppo and Patrick write in loneliness that “the role of subjective mean- ing in our sense of social connection is not all that different from the role of individualized, personal meaning in other aspects of our lives.” Surrounding yourself with people who don’t quite understand you, they explain, is like filling your bedroom with fake trophies: it doesn’t make you feel any better, even though it looks like it should. Whether it’s food, or friends, or bedroom décor, “if there is no deep, emotional resonance—specifically for you—then none of these relationships will satisfy the hunger for connection or ease the pain of feeling isolated.” You need a space to be made in the world especially for you, and when someone fails to understand you—when the name on your coffee cup is spelled wrong, when everything on the menu has gluten, when you ask to hold the onions and the onions come piled on anyway—you feel each small instance of indifference as a stinging denial of the self. This isn’t just frustrated desire; it’s the absence of your choice among apparently infinite choices, the sudden understanding that although this restaurant, this city, has options for everyone, it cannot accommodate you. This is what motivates Foursquare’s personalized search, what drives Seamless’ obsessive vigilance against misheard food orders. They are there for you, serving you, claiming your right to exist with all your desires.

Yet the terror of individual taste also works in the other direction. The more specialized, the more personalized your identity becomes, the more impossible it seems to connect that identity with anyone else’s—to reconcile a particular hunger for pickles and toffee and frozen yogurt with a hunger for companionship. That’s the point, after all—that not even the landscape looks the same to Foursquare users—that the same space is mapped out differently for different people. No one else, you begin to realize, will ever value just what you value. And this, too, is painfully isolating—for as loneliness documents, the need to know that others recognize you as an individual is complemented by the need to see yourself as a member of a group. Seamless ads play on this: they create, or imply, a community of the antisocial, activating a sense of isolation at the same time as they normalize it. Perhaps it’s worth noting here that Cacioppo and Patrick cite a study, led by psychologist Roy Baumeister, that supports a connection between eating and loneliness: Participants told they must work alone because no one else wanted to work with them ate twice as many cookies as those told they must work alone because they were just too popular. And then subway commuters, reminded that they had takeout where their peers had children, were presented with a picture of a pulled pork sandwich. We understand: you’re impossible, states Seamless. Have some food, and feel better.


Why can’t isolation be freedom? We can survive without others’ agreement. We can self-suffice with our personal search engines; we can subsist without needing to speak. Intimate friends and lovers burden us with their tacky restaurants and strange pizza toppings, their bad music, their expensive insistence on splitting a cab when we’re pretty sure we can walk. Their problems and their politics, their pain-in-the-ass TV shows, their eventual rejection when they find we aren’t enough. You don’t need this obstruction, this compromise, these confining limitations. You will find more adventures—adventures more to your taste—by striking out on your own.

Therefore Foursquare, with its premise and promise of a city mapped out as if made for you only. Therefore Seamless’ banners, blank except for a secret thought and a promised meal. Therefore these ads: safe and selfish in the shell of your own loneliness, you are free to want and free to pursue without compromise or shame. In “Leaving the Movie Theater,” Roland Barthes writes of the “darkness of the cinema (anonymous, populated, numerous)” and it sounds like the darkness of underground tunnels, crowded with isolated minds:

“It is in this urban dark that the body’s freedom is generated; this invisible work of possible affects emerges from a veritable cinematographic cocoon; the movie spectator could easily appropriate the silkworm’s motto: … it is because I am enclosed that I work and glow with all my desire.”

Zipcar offers this: “Wheels when you want to get away from your roommate.” Zipcar says: “Low commitment will get you everywhere.” Zipcar promises, in a heart made of car silhouettes, “It’s not your first and it won’t be your last,” and there is comfort in this statement of insignificance, in this promise of endings to come. You, enclosed in the car that you need only borrow (pay by the hour, as for certain hotel rooms) will move unscathed through worlds of importunate connection, unburdened by love or by loss. Your isolation will become an asset. Anonymity will be your trademark. And when you are most alone—don’t you long to break all your connections?—is when you will be most powerful, most mobile, most self-contained.

And so we return to the man in the chair on the curb. He faces away from the camera. He is passive and powerless, sitting alone, but soon he may leap into action. Soon he may jump into the giant van and leave all his belongings behind. He will be safe, behind that opaque white, and none will see his loneliness; in a vehicle with room for all of his problems, he’ll multiply in strength and size. Thus the power of the Zipcar ad turns on what cars and loneliness have in common. Both of them can envelop you, set you apart. But the car can take you away.


Often the protagonists of Zipcar ads are faceless. The “Sometimes you just need a car” campaign features people obscured by their objects: a woman at a bus shelter whose torso and head are a pile of gift boxes, two men with their heads stuck inside a canoe, a woman whose face is half covered by the twelve-pack of toilet paper Zipcar enables her to carry. Then there’s the picture captioned “No booty call shall go unanswered”: A couple embraces in the front seat of a car, his hand passionately clutching her headrest. The glare of the sun on the windshield obscures their faces, making their twined bodies shadowy and vague. You could call this romance. It could almost use some cozy, corny caption: “Every kiss begins with Kay.”

But Zipcar opts instead for the jaded and unsentimental. These are booty calls, not lovers; anonymous bodies, not faces. And as they rise from the walls of subway cars and float over the heads of commuters, as you stand packed between bodies of strangers and stare at them to avoid human eyes, they make perfect sense. Zipcar’s faceless ambassadors play on the discomforts of public spaces, striking a chord between the desire to be less anonymous and the desire to be more invisible. Imagine taking the train home with your excess of toilet paper, or the morning after your booty call—all eyes on your bed hair and purpling hickeys, dropping personal hygiene products on people’s feet. It won’t do. The car enables you to be both faceless and comfortable, safely contained in a metal shell with the things you do not want others to see.

Seamless takes a slightly different tack, presuming a degree of isolation to start with. It’s what’s inside your shell that these ads expose, in a series of half- proud, half-self-deprecating descriptions of social isolation. “Your friends in the Midwest share photos of their kids. You share photos of dinner,” boasts one banner, a pulled pork sandwich and a tray of macaroni sliding haphazardly out of the frame as if caught in a candid snapshot. “You know the food delivery guy’s name, but can’t name one neighbor,” announces another, presenting a salad. Seamless ads never show photos of people; it would be, perhaps, too embarrassing to attach a face to these feelings and a witness to their acknowledgement. Instead, they pair solid backgrounds with apparently random shots of food, a no-frills aesthetic that manages, in its blunt anonymity, to enact a private confrontation. Do you see yourself in this white lettering, this blue industrial-carpet background? In the pad thai and the pot stickers, have you found what you’re looking for?

When you can’t name one of your neighbors, this recognition is important. It’s a sign that someone (imagine the face yourself) understands you, knows who you are. And Seamless is highly successful in positioning itself and its products as a kind of surrogate for the affection consumers can’t get from anyone real. Consider the delivery guy, a recurring figure in Seamless ads: he seems to be the only person to whom the Seamlesser feels any connection. You know his name, after all, when you don’t know any of your neighbors’; in one ad, you even share a secret handshake. A rare first-person headline says it all: “I’m sorry I can’t be your Valentine, I’m in a healthy relationship with my delivery guy.” While the jokes hinge, rather troublingly, on the presumed absurdity of attaching a full human identity to a person who shows up to serve you, the surrogacy works: the delivery guy becomes the faceless face of the products providing you comfort. The jokes also present the Seamless life and the social life as binary opposites, which, in the Valentine ad, works out surprisingly in loneliness’ favor—the day-in, day-out routine of solitary dinners is actually better than love.


In their 2008 book loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick argue that loneliness—social pain, in other words—is an evolution- ary alarm system, designed to protect human well-being just like hunger or thirst or the pain of a burn.6 Cacioppo’s past research, with Richard E. Petty, focused on persuasion, and his Elaboration Likelihood Model of changing attitudes has been highly influential in advertising since the mid-1980s. His more recent work finds that loneliness is often self-perpetuating: “when we are lonely, the social expectations and snap judgments we create are gener- ally pessimistic … Once this negative feedback loop starts rumbling through our lives, others may start to view us less favorably because of our self-protective, sometimes distant, sometimes caustic behavior.”8 The more you need to be around other people, the more irritating you find them—and vice versa.

Thus it is that Seamless has progressed over its past few subway ad campaigns from deadpan, aw-shucksy self-deprecation to a brazen fuck-the- haters attitude that’s only half ironic. “You avoid eye contact with strangers, but you’ll read your credit card to one?” challenges one bright red poster, while another states, “You never call restaurants because the only person you ever wanna talk to is Siri.” From the same campaign comes “Skip the hold times and reserve your frustration for manspreading,” addressing strang- ers’ obnoxious use of both personal time and public space. That humble Midwesterner with the highly procre- ative friends back in his hometown has grown up a little, slimmed down his lettering, lost his cutesy NY♥. He now approaches calling restaurants the way he approaches tourists, which is by marching behind them, presumably gnashing his teeth, and chanting, “Serenity now!” The lonely are very easily irritated. Studies show that they’re also less logical—which means that if you strike their pessimistic moods just right, they’re easier to persuade. No, they can’t handle ten more minutes in public; they need dinner delivered immediately. They will any minute be kicked out by their girlfriends, and when it happens, they’ll just need a car.

“This is the Age of Loneliness,” writes critic George Monbiot in The Guardian. “Structural changes have been accompanied by a life-denying ideology, which enforces and celebrates our social isolation. The war of man against every man—competition and individualism, in other words—is the religion of our time, justified by a mythology of lone rangers, sole traders, self-starters, self- made men and women, going it alone.” Indeed, there’s a touch of callousness in Seamless’ rejection of human contact; at times the ads read like an antisocial manifesto. But the ideal Seamlesser is less guilty of denying life than of giving up on it. Communication is hopeless in the world of these ads: the assumption that underlies every slogan, from “Serenity now!” to “If you wanted to repeat yourself, you’d have called your mom,” is that the simplest of utterances, a food order, can never be communicated without misunderstandings. You will never be heard from the midst of the crowd, from the end of the phone line: better stop talking. A more controlled, complete isolation will be much more convenient.

Rosa Inocencio Smith is a senior at Columbia University. She is an English major and the 2015 winner of Columbia’s Brownstein Prize for creative writing. After graduation, she will be working in New York City as a Social Media Fellow for She is the CJLC 2015 MVP.