Instagram ads are unique in their strangeness. Every four to six photos, we're suddenly accosted with a QVC-type item, punted with artisanal filters and an ADHD-friendly ad length. We watch with fascination: Wireless bras made of space tech! Magical vitamins for your microbiome. Unpierceable shoes made of bottles, foldable to the size of a coin purse. Subscription services for plants, mushrooms, books, beauty products, witchcraft tools.
While their usefulness varies, the ads are hypnotic; advertising's inheritance can be found in these small, precious frames. They are nourished by Kickstarter videos, startup pitches, Instagram live and possibly also David Lynch, with a sprinkling of nostalgic—yet effective!—Cheer demo ads.
So much of this stuff represents an only marginal improvement in our lives, yet, by merit of the medium, every single one is positioned as a premium lifestyle choice.
Xouxou's smartphone necklace is our favorite current example.
"Keep your hands free," says Xouxou. Even if we can imagine the item's practical uses, its luxury-adjacent positioning is over-the-top. This feeling is compounded by time: Fifteen years ago, a brand for an object this trite would never have been able to justify the cost of putting an ad in front of us, never mind one this conceptual. That's the entire reason QVC exists.
Xouxou's "smartphone necklace" baldly rejects pockets, bags large and small, and any number of existing solutions for sheathing your mobile phone. Why shouldn't your window to the world merit its own suspension system on your person?
And what things can Xouxou buyers do, now that their hands are free? Paint with their hair. Carry tons of cats. Roller-dance, or feed dogs named Tiffany fancy snacks on a big flouncy bed decorated like layer cake.
The work, though, manages its tensions nicely: It is practical, but also ridiculous, which easily makes it a modern luxury. All its silly, pastel-saturated examples belie an inherent usefulness: One woman is eating a hamburger; another reads. Even the hair-painting lady, or the hallway roller-dancer, are sending a message: Keeping your phone around your neck may be a bit extra, but it also keeps you conveniently connected while ensuring freedom of movement: No need to contort yourself as you dig through bags or pockets, or hunt for where you last left the ball at the (literal) end of your chain. It will always be just a few fingertips away, drifting meaningfully between belly and heart.
This might sound dumb, but humans are dumb. We're reminded of netsuke, part of feudal Japan's solution for pockets. When everyone was kimono-clad, people developed a system whereby portable pockets could be attached to your obi. This was accomplished by threading a cord through the receptacle, and counterbalancing it with a small item, the netsuke.
Because people always need to stunt, netsuke became a way to signal social status: "If someone wears a chrysanthemum and it's not an autumn month, you'd say, 'Oof, why is he wearing a chrysanthemum?' " says Robert Mintz, deputy director of the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, and scholar of Japanese art, to Atlas Obscura.
Thus, Xouxou's smartphone necklace, practical and ludicrous and undoubtedly very successful, perches neatly on the shoulders of giants.
On our quest (read: rapid Google) to learn the identity of Xouxou's agency (a fail), we learned more about the company itself: It was a "creative macramé project" conceived in Berlin by then-pregnant Yara Jentzsch Dib in 2015. One of her first products was a knotted crib for her son. The smartphone necklace was born with her baby, for whom she often needed to have both hands free.
"Rummaging through her bag to find the phone, or losing it at the playground, was simply not an option anymore. After putting together an early prototype of a smartphone necklace and getting asked where one could buy it on the daily, Yara decided to add it to her Macramé online shop—the rest is history," Xouxou tells us.
Social media is full of stories like this, osmosing through our skin even if we don't bother to dig them up. A creative idea is tossed out to sea, then, improbably, nurtured to bloom with help from super-granular social ads (no thanks to you, GDPR!). A lifestyle empire is born, its every growth spurt hate-watched by its own envious consumers and fans.
Just over a decade ago, Dib's smartphone necklace might have been confined to a few airport-based tech shops, its destiny limited by the errant emotions of the jetlagged. Instead, she's built a dreamy family business, where her phone lanyard has been folded into a larger creative story—her pregnancy, her macramé, her love of knots, the Berlin winter. Suddenly the item is not just a practical tool but a lifestyle choice, up there with discerning shoe purchases and carefully angled fanny packs.
Xouxou's 100,000th smartphone necklace was sold in December 2018, "and there is no decrease in demand," the website gushes. The ad above has been cut into snackable videos and converted into Instagram dark posts. Here's one we managed to catch—paint lady!
Other bits and pieces, not to mention super aesthetic in-situ user shots, can be found on the Xouxou Instagram.