Desire Machines: How wearables like the Apple Watch tap into the language of fashion and sex

Flick through computer magazines from the 1970s and you’ll be faced with images of women posing beside bulky computing paraphernalia – modems, PCs, printers.

Desire Machines: How wearables like the Apple Watch tap into the language of fashion and sex

This was an age when the appeal of computers and technology wasn’t yet enough to draw people in on its own two feet, so advertisements clumsily resorted to posing models beside these new objects in a bid to inject an element of sex appeal. Sex could sell anything: cars, clothes – surely even a 1200 baud modem.


Visually, a vast gulf has opened between those clumsy adverts and the adverts of today, but in some ways the marketing of technology has come full circle. In today’s adverts for wearables and interconnected devices, the hardware pales in comparison to the promise of what it brings to your life, health and even your sex life. As technology steadily assumes a central role in dating, love and health, advertising is also becoming more emotive, more personal.apple_watch_hermes

(Above: An advert for Apple Watch Hermès)

Back to the future

Pause for a moment, though. Blow the dust off the old grey box in your attic, hold the monitor in both hands and carry it downstairs. There it is: 1995. The world was a simpler place. Your computer was beige. It was categorically unsexy. It sat on your desk because you needed something to work on at home. You bought it because it had 4MB RAM and a CD-ROM.

Fast-forward to 2015, above your head is an advert for the Apple Watch Hermès. A woman holds her arm up against her loose white shirt, the watch snakes around her wrist. A few strands of hair have fallen against her lips. The computer on her arm is sold to you in a very different way. It isn’t even sold as a computer. It is a wearable – an adjective without a noun.

The Hermès advert doesn’t bombard you with specifications – there aren’t any – and what grabs your attention is how the strap looks, how the woman looks and how you will look if you buy the watch. This is technology made to appear gorgeous, alluring – sold purely on its looks.old_pc_adverts

Compared to the PC adverts of the 1990s, and even the smartphones of the past few decades, there is less light shone on the technical capabilities and more on the pairings between technology and lifestyle: between smartbands and healthiness, smartwatches and attractiveness.  

Sex appeal

I spoke to Leslie Hallam, a psychologist who runs a course on the psychology of advertising at Lancaster University. Hallam tells me the shift in technology advertising runs deeper than a few fashionable adverts.

“In addition to a simple display of wealth, [which is] in itself imbued with sex appeal, the well-documented ‘millennial narcissism’ – the sex appeal of oneself ­– is likely to drive a sexiness, not just of devices, but increasingly of software and especially, interfaces, as avatars increasingly become the means by which individuals show themselves to the world,” Hallam told me.

“The next big thing in this arena will not be so much the sexiness of the machines we are familiar with now, but rather the sex appeal of machines with which we will have sex.”jg_ballard_crash

It seems like a wild leap from smartwatches to sex robots, but it’s not entirely far-fetched. In her introduction to JG Ballard’s 1973 novel Crash, the writer Zadie Smith says that Ballard’s iconic book about a group of people who are sexually stimulated by car crashes subverts the world presented to us in advertising. In car advertisements, Smith says, we are sold a world where irrational pairings are made between “speed and self-esteem, leather interiors and family happiness”. What Ballard does in Crash is insist upon a different, darker set of connections. It takes those advertised connections between technology and desire and runs with them.

If Ballard’s mode is the car – the dominant technology of the late 20th century – how would his novel translate to the 21st century? We live in an age when technology is increasingly about distributed devices. The convergence between humans and machines is no longer about the crash between bodies and single objects but, as Hallam suggests, between bodies and a network of interconnected avatars – our LinkedIn profile picture, our Tinder persona, our Facebook selfie – and devices wrapped around our wrists, sat in our pockets or on our screens.  

Our love lives are becoming integrated into the devices we wear. There waves of apps that scan for lovers from devices tucked into our pockets, there are app-controlled sex toys, there is even a Tinder smartwatch app that uses a heart-rate monitor to match you with prospective partners. When it comes to technology and our bodies, the modern age is less of a crash and more of a tangle.

What we talk about when we talk about tech

Let’s cycle back a bit from the cyber-sexual brink. If desktop computers emphasised the features of one singular object – their ports, power and upgradability – the distributed nature of the Internet of Things and wearables puts less focus on the objects themselves and more on how they interact with us as physical beings. This fundamentally changes how we think of the word “computer”.


(Above: An advert for Jawbone fitness trackers)

With Apple Watch Hermès, that emphasis is on fashion and sex appeal, and even the method by which it notifies us about text or phone call feels somehow intimate – a light tap on the wrist, rather than a frantic buzz in the pocket.

With a wearable such as Fitbit or Jawbone, our focus is drawn to health and fitness. Look at the advert for a Jawbone fitness tracker and the device and app retreat into the periphery, our attention centered instead on the aspirational lifestyle choice that comes with buying that technology – the healthy breakfast, the morning run, the good night’s sleep.

“It’s very much about what the purpose of the technology is in the first place that defines how it’s spoken about,” Dominik Donocik, a design technologist at Native Design, told me. “Think of the difference between critical life-saving technologies and status objects. The interesting thing is when an object suddenly does both, such as with modern fitness trackers.”

“To a large extent the seamlessness of collecting data, and responding to that in various forms and via multiple devices enables new types of experiences. I think there will be more to come, what that may be the future can only tell.”


(Above: An advert for LG Watch Urbane)

Body tech

Broadly speaking, we care less about what a computer does for our work habits and more for what it does for us in terms of lifestyle and, on the evidence of adverts such as this, it’s something advertisers are keenly aware of.

The advertising language of technology is changing. Personal computing developed its own particular dialect over decades; one built of specs, features and capabilities. With the advent of wearables and the Internet of Things, that language is shifting further than it ever has before, away from the object and towards what it means for our appearance.old_nokia_advert

As they fight against function saturation – with little to differentiate one phone from another in terms of features – smartphones are also buying into this new focus. At the end of the day, these are rectangles with bright screens, and when internal capabilities don’t draw crowds, brands have to fight to differentiate themselves in terms of design and advertising. Like smartwatches, this means straying into the advertising language of fashion, sport and luxury – and all of these have a great deal to do with attractiveness and sex appeal.


If our desktop PC from 1995 was made to be desirable in terms of technical capability, the new wave of fashion-conscious smartwatches moves that sense of desire towards aesthetics and sex appeal. In a general sense, this is a jump from work to leisure, but it also demonstrates the diffusion of computing into increasingly diverse sectors of our lives – out of our offices and onto our bodies.

If there is a turn towards the emotional appeal of technology, it marks an important change in how computers are positioned in our lives – no longer sat on our desks, but integrated into nearly every aspect of our physical lives. They’ve crept steadily from the office to the living room, into our cars, our bedrooms, and from our pockets to our wrists.  

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