Amazon ‘cutewashes’ surveillance with its new Ring doorbell TV show

Branded is a weekly column devoted to the intersection of marketing, business, design, and culture.

For a “normal” company, having a TV series with your product as the star would be an impossible dream. But Amazon is not a normal company.

The latest evidence that this is so comes from the recent announcement of a new Funniest Home Videos-style show, hosted by Wanda Sykes and with a built-in surveillance-society twist: It consists entirely of entertaining clips captured by camera-equipped Ring doorbells.

Ring Nation, set to debut in syndication in late September, is remarkable for a couple of reasons. First, it’s an eye-popping corporate flex: Not only does Amazon own Ring, it also owns the studio behind the show (MGM Television), as well as the producer (Big Fish Entertainment).

That’s a stark reminder of how sprawling and far-reaching Amazon’s properties have become. But it’s also the latest proof that the company simply does not behave as if it’s worried about evil-empire critiques (or government regulators).

Second, this particular manifestation of corporate synergy doubles as a strikingly bold maneuver to shape the brand conversation around Ring. Founded a decade ago and acquired by Amazon in 2018, Ring has in recent years been a prominent target of privacy activists and critics of Big Tech who essentially argue that making video cameras a commonplace feature of the front porch is effectively adding up to a panopticon society.

Moreover, more than 2,000 U.S. police departments use an app called Neighbors, on which “users post Ring camera footage and leave comments,” according to Politico. “Police can use the app to send alerts and request videos.”

Watchdog organizations have argued that the hookup between private citizens’ surveillance and law enforcement can result in racial profiling. Even more controversially, Amazon has in some circumstances shared Ring footage with police departments without the camera owners’ consent.

The upshot is that—not surprisingly—Ring has been roundly criticized on privacy issues, as Fast Company has covered in the past.

“Using fear-mongering about package theft and suburban crime,” reads a typical critique in Vice, “a surveillance company has convinced countless homes to affix a surveillance network node that police departments and one of the world’s largest monopolies will use to their benefit.” Thus with the debut of Ring Nation, a similar assessment in The Verge contends that Amazon “wants to make the surveillance state fun.”

That doesn’t sound like a good premise for a humorous video-clip show. But the creators of Ring Nation aren’t necessarily wrong to think their show could find an appreciative audience. That’s because (dystopian implications aside) Ring footage really is already a part of pop culture. And that’s been true for a while.

“Ring videos . . . provide a constant stream of news and news-like material for media outlets,” the New York Times pointed out in an article about the Amazon device’s rising popularity a couple of years ago, specifically noting that the long-running America’s Funniest Home Videos had released a doorbell-footage compilation titled “Funny Doorbell Camera Fails.”

Ring has used actual camera footage in its online ads for years, and there’s already a sort of “best of Ring videos” section on the company’s website. Today, inevitably, there are a slew of #RingDoorbell and #ring videos on TikTok and other platforms.

This, of course, is the phenomenon that Ring Nation is exploiting by collecting and packaging “hilarious and uplifting must-see viral moments,” as a press release puts it, such as “neighbors saving neighbors and marriage proposals to military reunions and silly animals.”

That’s not a case for the surveillance state, but it certainly reframes—and potentially defangs—the discourse around the Ring device, and perhaps around technology in general. Call it cutewashing, or LOLwashing, but the end result is that the conversation changes from privacy concerns to fun distraction. Eventually a camera on every front porch seems normal, harmless, just another collector of visual data—or viral entertainment. 

The gambit is not risk-free: The news of Ring Nation is certainly giving Amazon and Ring critics a fresh opening to wonder if the new show should really be called Surveillance Nation. But it’s not hard to see why Amazon might conclude it’s a risk worth taking.

Maybe by now most of the critics have already made up their minds, but there’s a much larger pool of persuadable people (and potential customers) happy to buy into Ring footage as a light diversion, and perhaps a useful tool, rather than the menace critics see.

And converting that core marketing message into a mainstream entertainment property would be a branding coup. Who knows what could follow? Perhaps an Amazon Prime series in which a (recent acquisition) Roomba teams up with Alexa to solve crimes. Or a sitcom about a Twitch celebrity with a day job at Whole Foods.

Okay, maybe that’s a stretch, but you get the idea: Ring is an example of a product and brand that sparks a lot of conversation and attention; with Ring Nation, Amazon isn’t trying to silence the chatter, but rather to redirect it. The more we focus on—and consume, and share—the cute and funny episodes Ring captures, the less we’re paying attention to the more serious implications of the mainstreaming of surveillance.

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