Peter York On Ads

Feeling remote from your real world? Try scribbling with the Nokia folk
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Do you have a crucial reference group? The idea is one of the loveliest little things social psychology has given us. It goes like this: you might be living in Pontefract but your mind could be elsewhere. You could be asking yourself, when any big looming question comes up, "What would Jesus do?" –, rather than what the people up the road would do or even councillor Jones. Or you could be in Aberdeen but feel the kind of person who really set standards inside your head is the Duchess of Grafton, Her Majesty's Lady of the Bedchamber.

Those of you who read 'OK!', 'Hello!', 'Heat' and 'Closer' will have noticed the informal references to celebrities. Miss Aniston, for instance, is Jen. Miss Winehouse, Amy, and so forth. You almost feel you know them. You certainly know the contents of their medicine cupboards and their dressing rooms. While most readers see the celebrity press as entertainment and a way of bringing the great down to size by showing them on the beach, there will be some readers who see them as a stimulus for reference-groupiedom. Miss Paltrow, for instance – Gwynnie to some – rarely puts a foot wrong, which might give people pause when dismissing Mr Martin as boring. He may have hidden depths. Mr Clooney appears to have near-perfect pitch in moral matters and really nice hair.

Mass communications create stalkers because they make remote people feel far more familiar than councillor Jones. It's very easy to retreat from the community, and a lot of people do. Too many reference groups all over the place – pick and mix ones – makes for a bit of a muddle. It's difficult, for instance, to speak to large audiences if you can't assume at least some common ground.

A lot of high-minded people were very fussed in the late 20th century at the idea that the centre wouldn't hold under the pressure of new technology and rampant bourgeois individualism. Robert Putnam's clever 'Bowling Alone' (1995) showed how civil society was declining as every kind of organisation – political parties, bowling groups – saw memberships drop. A mass of standard-maintaining disappears with that. Private affluence, public squalor. While you're dreaming about your Gorgeous Life in LA, half of Milton Keynes could have been taken over by space people. You'd never notice.

My own answer to the decline of civic society is to get the advertising and sponsorship people in to reorganise us. Every new social initiative has to be like a telethon. A sponsored collaboration that's warm, wet and woolly. A new kind of big-budget 21st century advertising is the warmest, wettest and woolliest ever. Ironically the makers of mobile phones, the most isolating, bowling-alone things possible, are very keen on these big ideas.

Nokia, the new brand for the country formerly known as Finland (98 per cent of Finns work for Nokia, while the rest make Alvar Aalto reproductions), has a new campaign with all these characteristics – young people getting together, being enterprising and artistic. Lots of multi-cultural youth are scribbling on the ground together, faster and faster. They're doing those sort of earth-from-the-air drawings and pooling them in what looks like Central Park.

It seems very public spirited in a non-specific way – it's not at all clear why they're doing it. But it's actually about mapping "to find the places and people we love the most". Does this mean it's really a sort of handheld GPS?

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