This piece was originally written for me for publication on Gizmodo UK - a site that no longer exists. As such, with the site wiped from the internet, I assume there's no harm in republishing, but if any rights holders disagree, then please do get in touch.
I think it was around the two-hour mark where I lost the will to live. I’d set out to find out how people are selling smartphones on shopping channels in an era where internet shopping is everywhere, and what had started as a fun idea turned into something more than a mere chore. I’m pretty sure I became the first person in the history of the world to series-link an Ideal World special.
“When I saw the deal I thought ‘wow, that's a fantastic deal… what kind of phone are we getting?’” asks Ideal World Shopping Channel host Peter Vollebregt. I can regrettably answer that question from memory, having made the unfortunate life choice of watching over three hours of him trying to hawk it. It’s the STK Life 7. No, I’d never heard of it either – and I’ve been reviewing phones for the past four years.
Fortunately a promotional video regularly breaks up the presenter banter, smoothing over my ignorance. STK aims to “redefine luxury by combining functional design, innovation and attention to detail,” the promo oozes. A quick check of the dictionary tells me that this £79.99 smartphone hasn’t quite managed to get that new definition to stick, but at least it’s trying.
And that shouldn’t surprise you. “With one prevalent dream, to go where there is no path and leave a trail, STK are the darers and doers of the tech world,” the voice continues. “STK are people that take responsibility to create an honest legacy that will take the next generation to a level we can only imagine.”
Gosh. How do they do that? Novelty camera overlays seems to be the main innovation, as far as I can tell.
No wonder the presenters seem keen. “I couldn’t believe it - the amount of tech you’re getting for that price,” says Vollebregt. “There’s more technology in this phone than put a man on the moon - when I say more, I mean not thousands of times. Millions.”
That’s right: you too could plan your very own Apollo mission with four simple payments of £20. You shouldn’t expect to lift off too quickly, though – just look how long it takes to open the TripAdvisor app:
“Everything is going to flow quite smoothly on this phone,” says Vollebregt, cheerfully ignoring the evidence from his own hand.
The full specifications aren’t ever fully disclosed, and the STK site is equally vague. An (unspecified) quad-core processor, 1GB RAM, and a 2,000mAh battery. It runs “one of the latest operating systems,” the presenters keep saying, which turned out to be Android N. Technically that is “one of the latest operating systems” but only in the same way that Temple of Doom is “one of the latest Indiana Jones movies”.
Actually, to be fair, it might run “Andriod 7.0”, which I’m less familiar with.
It’s supposed to sell for £119.99, but this is a Presenter Takeover special which means low, low prices for a limited time. In this case it’s £79.99 with a free power bank (“I like to call it electricity on the go” – thanks Peter) or a £10 O2 SIM card. That appears to be a great deal – “Have a look at some of the places we found it,” the presenters urge showing prices ranging between £89.99 and £119.99.
They can’t have looked too hard. A quick internet search reveals the handset on sale for £59.99 at retailers they’ve mysteriously missed, but given the presenters’ collective astonishment at five-year-old Android functions, I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and suggest they’re not familiar with Google.com. Or even Bing.
It’s apparently selling like hotcakes. There are “only around ten left” of the O2 deal, and you “desperately, desperately need to check out,” urges co-presenter Hayley Green towards the end of the second hour. As someone who mentally checked out about half an hour earlier, I completely sympathise.
“I’ll be absolutely honest,” she adds, calling into question how honest she was for the preceding 120 minutes, “I’m really worried about the stock. It’s meant to last until 9pm tonight, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t.” I share this worry, given I’ve recorded two more hours for this feature. What am I going to write about if the last 120 minutes become a eulogy to a brilliant offer gone before its time?
I needn’t have worried. Hour three begins with Green missing – probably just as well given the stress the lack of stock seemed to be causing. In her place is Paul Becque, a cheerful cockney presenter, who launches things with a strong sales pitch. “Now I’m confident if I said I could get you a SatNav, a photo camera, a video camera and many many more items for under £100… c’mon, a SatNav for under 100 quid? You’re interested right?” Becque knows three people with £1,000 handsets. Those suckers.
His cheery style certainly adds a little levity to proceedings. He’s in awe of the breadth of the Google Play store’s content. There’s something for you whether you’re a fan of gardening or racing pigeons. “Yes, even racing pigeons,” he emphasises to a presumably disbelieving audience. A quick fact check shows that, yes, there are multiple pigeon racing apps on the Google Play Store.
But he’s not always an asset. “It’s a dog! I thought it was a mouse in that little picture,” he exclaims, somewhat undermining Vollebregt as he’s mid-way through effusively praising the quality of snaps he’s managed with the 8-megapixel camera.
The fourth and final hour is a real treat, and not just because there’s still stock – despite Green’s warnings eight hours earlier. Not just because a loud buzzer sounds every ten minutes to warn the deal is nearly over. No, the real treat is an ostentatious countdown clock that sits in the right-hand corner of the screen, telling me exactly how much more of this I’m going to have to endure before I can go outside again.
Actually by this point, I’ve seen the patter so much I think I could be drafted in to make the sales pitch. I’ve seen Peter in the fake French coffee shop three times. I’ve seen Peter in the car banging on about Sat Nav three times. I worry that I’ll dream about Peter showing off some fairly ropey camera overlays for the rest of my life. “How amazing is that?” he lilts when I close my eyes, even now.
But there’s one part that remains truly spellbinding even on its third appearance.
INT. A hotel bedroom - Day. Peter Vollebregt enters carrying an enormous luggage in one hand, and a STK Life 7 smartphone in the other. From the suitcase, one by one, he removes all the items his smartphone has replaced from what he describes as holiday essentials.
One by one, a calculator, a calendar, a SatNav, a book, newspapers, magazines, a video camera, DVDs, CDs, a phrase book, a clock, a torch, a camera, a microphone, a radio, a chess set and a laptop are magically produced and tossed onto the bed. “Tell me, do you carry around a TV?” he asks at the climax of this five-minute tour de force, picking up what seems to be a 20-inch television. “Well I do… not this one, because that would be ridiculous. No, no: this one right here,” he continues, grabbing the STK Life 7 again. “Isn’t that incredible?”
Like watching multiple performances of Hamlet, this magnificent performance is subtly different each time, meaning some poor sucker has been setting up the vignette repeatedly. It’s amazing that some disgruntled runner didn’t put in some dummy items for him to explain away, really, but sadly no sombreros or comically large marrows were smuggled in for either the matinee or evening performances of this engrossing piece of avant-garde performance art.
So what have I learned after spending 0.045% of 2018 watching three people trying to schill a budget smartphone to a largely disinterested audience? Chiefly that you’re not supposed to watch four hours of it. It’s designed for channel hoppers dropping by and repetition is rife. Other life lessons along the way: you shouldn’t buy a smartphone from a shopping channel. Almost every decent STK feature comes from free Google apps and salespeople are prone to somewhat exaggerate the truth. Who knew?
But the most odd thing about the whole experience is that even the hosts don’t seem to know who’s watching anymore. Is the audience aware smartphones exist or not? It’s not clear. Vollebregt claims Ideal World shifts around 50,000 STK phones per year, so somebody’s buying them. How many end up being returned with that no-quibble guarantee is left to our imaginations.