Once upon a time, cell phones served as a status symbol. In The '80s, when they had just been invented and were both too bulky and too expensive for widespread use, carrying a cell phone was a shorthand for high status and wealth. Businessmen were always bound to show up with one. (The earliest examples of this variation on the trope use a beeper instead, but the intent is the same: to show that the owner is important and needed.)
In The '90s, as mainstream cell phone ownership was starting to take root, their role as a status symbol in media evolved. Sure, anyone might own one, but only the wealthiest had the ultra-advanced camera phone decorated with gems and a super fast internet connection. Special attention was paid to the brand and the utilities of the phone denote the character's status, making it ripe for Product Placement. Expect the Rich Bitch and the Phoneaholic Teenager to show up with one.
This trope is almost dead in today's day and age. Nowadays, cellphones have become so mainstream and so much more affordable that it's basically expected for someone to have one, and having a top-of-the-line model doesn't really mean that much anymore either—especially since it's probably got at least a dozen nearly identical competitors and is only an incremental upgrade to phone's previous model anyway. Certain brands still play it straight to a point, but if the trope appears in contemporary fiction it's likely to be either satire, parody or deconstruction (unless it's a Period Piece set in an era when cell phones were less ubiquitous). A contemporary variant is for a character lacking a cellphone to be more notable, signifying poverty, being out-of-touch (especially if they're elderly), or technophobia.
Subtrope of Technology Marches On.
- One of Budweiser's "Real Men of Genius" ads profiled "Mr. Really-Loud-Cell-Phone-Talker Guy":
Nothing screams "I'm important" like a man screaming "I'm important" into a cell phone.♩ Did I mention I'm important ♩
- Smartphones are commonplace in Ayakashi Triangle, but both modern versions of the trope come up:
- Suzu expresses surprise that someone as old-fashioned as Matsuri has a smartphone. He hadn't used it as a phone very much, as his grandfather was his only contact, and may have gotten it just to receive alerts from the Creature-Hunter Organization he belongs to (though he's still a compulsive mobile game player).
- Lu comes from a wealthy family, and uses a specific model of smartphone (iPhone 11 Pro) that's not just much more expensive than the others, it has a visibly-advanced three-lens camera for her obsessive photo-taking.
- One of the few times Chainsaw Man directly emphasizes its late-90s setting is when Asa Mitaka reveals she has a cell phone handed down from her recently-deceased mother. It briefly impresses her peers before she accidentally breaks it. Yoshida also has a cell phone (which he didn't show because it wouldn't work), which is another sign he's a very well-connected, probably well-paid individual.
Yoshida: Do high schoolers these days own cell phones?
Seigi: Luckily for us, Mitaka's ahead of the times!
- Miyuki from Nurse Angel Ririka SOS owning a cellphone in the mid-1990s (and as an elementary schooler no less) signifies her as wealthy.
- Touga is the only one in Revolutionary Girl Utena with a cellphone, signifying both that he's rich and is such a ladykiller he needs a way for all his girlfriends to contact him quickly.
- Parodied by FoxTrot in this series of strips from 1998. Roger, tired of being the only one at the office without a cell phone, decides to one-up all his co-workers... with an absurdly oversized phone that must be half his own height, and needs to be plugged in because no battery can hold a charge long enough to power it. Naturally, Roger is the only person who thinks this is a good idea.
- In Horton Hears a Who! (2008), one of the mayor's girls wants a cell phone, claiming that everyone else in class has one. When her dad says she's exaggerating, she shows him her class photo, with everyone but her talking on their cells.
- In We're Back! A Dinosaur's Story, Lonely Rich Kid Cecilia explains her situation of Parental Neglect as "my father's very business, and my mother's very social." And just how "business" is her dad? When we see a "wish you were here" photo of him and his wife (without Cecilia, of course) on a tropical vacation, they're on the beach in bathing suits and yet he still has a big early-90s brick clutched to his ear.
- In Turning Red, Tyler has a camera phone which, given that the movie is set in 2002 when those were just coming out, is very impressive.
- In the 1980 comedy film Caddyshack, Rodney Dangerfield plays Al Czervik, a real-estate developer who is shown to be eccentric and filthy rich right from the start. He has a telephone right in his golf bag, which he answers while out on the course. This was not a typical "brick" phone, but from what we could see it was more like a typical 1970s desk phone, complete with an acoustic ringing bell and a coiled handset cord.
- The main characters in Clueless all having mobile phones despite being in high school was intended as a joke about how spoilt and well-off they were. Modern viewers tend not to understand why a high school student with a mobile phone is supposed to be funny.
- Harry from When Harry Met Sally... has a fake plastic car phone, just so he can fake talking on it, to look rich and important when someone else is talking on theirs.
- Gordon Gekko on Wall Street has an extravagant, top-of-the-the-line, and brick-sized cell phone. This is used as a Technology Marches On gag in the sequel Money Never Sleeps when he is released from prison and gets said phone, now obsolete, returned to him.
- Parodied on Zoolander, where the title character's cell phone is impractically tiny.
- In Romy and Michele's High School Reunion, one of the two girls gets a flip phone to complete the image of their being successful businesswomen so they could impress their classmates.
- Mean Girls: Gretchen, the wealthy daughter of the inventor of toaster strudel, is the only character in the film with a cell phone, which she lends to Regina so that she can humiliate a classmate.
- Ocean's Thirteen: Willy Bank demands that his assistant get him an extremely fancy, gold-and-jewel-encrusted cellphone. She tries to explain that it's only just entered production and won't be available for months but Bank wants it now. Ocean's crew take advantage of this, and Yen having a connection with the company responsible, to send a rigged version of the phone that will knock out the security system in Bank's casino for them.
- In the Doctor Who Past Doctor Adventures novel Business Unusual (written in 1997, set in 1986) Mel's dad is a businessman who's extremely proud of his mobile phone. The Doctor, who knows that in ten years they'll be a fraction of the size and a lot more common (and has vastly more advanced tech in the TARDIS), isn't impressed.
- In Kim Newman's short story "Organ Donors", Sally Rhodes's new job includes being provided with a "portable phone", which is indicative of how important it is (although being Sally, she doesn't actually use it). Newman notes this as one of the things that makes the story an Unintentional Period Piece.
- Dave Barry had a newspaper column in the late 90s or early 00s about how smaller cell phones and larger SUVs were the status symbols of the time. He predicted a lot of traffic accidents in the future: everyone will drive vehicles the size of Delaware, but they won't be able to watch the road because they'll be too distracted by losing their rice grain-sized cell phones mid-conversation.
- Crowley having a car phone in his Bentley (also owning a Bentley) and an answering machine in Good Omens is a symbol of his being filthy rich.
- Touhou Kourindou ~ Curiosities of Lotus Asia has a spin on this thanks to Touhou's Schizo Tech setting. When Sumireko (a person from the Outside World) visits Kourindou, she unintentionally takes some wind out of Rinnosuke's sails by saying that the Outside World technology he has on display is 20-30 years out of date; in particular she's somewhat surprised to see an old model cellphone that doesn't fold. She then impresses Rinnosuke by showing him her smartphone and describing some of the things it can do.
- Used in a roundabout way in the 2000s book Parrotfish. Grady being a nerd is accentuated when he complains that he's one of the few kids at his high school without a phone.
- Saved by the Bell was one of the earliest examples, as Zack Morris' cellphone is a sign that's he's an ambitious schemer.
- On Corner Gas the town of Dog's River is in the middle of nowhere and has really lousy cell reception. The residents are forced to use special cellphone with bulky signal boosters. When it is announced that a new cell tower will be erected in the town, the main characters get new cellphones and a try to show up each other by getting progressively smaller cellphones. However, when the plans for the new cell tower are abandoned, they have to go back to their old bulky models.
- In the "Jeffery's" recurring sketch on Saturday Night Live the manager of a Jeffery's (designer clothing) store has a very tiny phone, about half the size of his thumb. In the last sketch he has a really large brick phone. When the sales clerks laugh at him he says "big is the new small. Cami Diaz has one twice this size."
- Spoofed on 30 Rock with Dennis Duffy, who brags about being the top beeper supplier in the city, at a time when beepers were becoming obsolete.
- In a case of Technology Marches On, Home Improvement had an episode where Al gets a cell phone and Tim criticizes him because of the price.
- In Sherlock, Irene Adler's (modified) cell phone is a Vertu Constellation Quest (see Real Life below), which retails for £17,300 ($26,845). Subverted in that you need to be familiar with the brand to recognize the model. Many viewers probably thought it was a BlackBerry or something. It does, however, raise the question of how Sherlock was able to afford one for his attempt to trick Irene with a copy of her phone, considering he can't afford to rent from Mrs. Hudson on his own and is cavalier about getting paid for his work.
- The Barrier: Cell phones exist, but have become too expensive for most people, who share public landline phones. Because of this, people who own cell phones are rich, high-ranking or someone who has been provided one by a member of the two former categories.
- Salt-N-Pepa reference this in their song, "Express Yourself". They talk about a "business man with a beeper for a reason, not like Tim because it's in this season."
- Tupac Shakur mentions this in "Changes", with the line "They get jealous when they see you with your mobile phone".
- i got no iphone by Perry Gripp seems hilariously dated today, but back in 2009 when the song came out, dumbphones were still the norm, and the iPhone was both relatively expensive and exclusive to AT&T.
- In one round of "Swankers" on I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, in which the panelists have to keep one-upping each others' boasts, they describe increasingly absurd features of their cellphones, until Jeremy Hardy wins by saying his phone plugs into the wall, so he'll never lose it.
- Scarface: The World Is Yours: Played with. Tony's acquisition of a cell phone is used to underscore the fact that he's rebuilding his criminal empire and climbing back to the top of Miami's criminal underworld. However, rather than acquiring it legitimately, he steals it.
- Shin Megami Tensei IV uses an After the End, practical twist. Smartphones are important because they're needed to summon and command demons Why phones? , and it's said that a grunt in the Ashura-Kai has to deal Red Pills for months before they're given a phone.
- Yakuza 0 (which takes place in the 80s) has an NPC who is very proud of his top-of-the-line "bag phone", a precursor to the cell phone the size of a large purse. Majima thinks It Will Never Catch On, especially given the many items he needs to give before he can finally make a call (or rather, would have made a call, since he forgot who he wanted to call while going around collecting all the items he needed). Once you've completed the sub-story, you can use the bag phone as a Save Point whenever you meet the NPC, although you need to give him a battery each time.
- Whateley Universe: With more than one Gadgeteer Genius working on cellphones, and charging appropriately, the quality of a cellphone indicates either your connections to those Gadgeteers, or your ability to pay the price for such a cellphone:
Jadis [...] pulled out her phone, which I now knew was a gift from her father. That meant it had features that even my bPhone probably didn't have, although Bunny had designed an entire phone OS so that she could write or update apps for the phone to give it new functionality whenever she felt like it.
- Such as the bPhone and the stuff Jadis's dad can make, as said in Ayla and the Mad Scientist (Chap 20):
"Like I would give you just some mass market techno-trinket?" Zach asked with a grin. "I had ABBY assemble this inside a gPhone casing. It can do everything a gPhone can do- except maybe fink you out to the MCO- and a whole lot more. It has ten times the RAM, its battery holds 15 times the charge, and- hey, just check out the 'handbook' for all the apps, otherwise we'll be here all day. I basically told ABBY to go for 'awesome', and I'd say that she did a good job of it."
- Or the enhanced gPhone from The Final Trump (Part 1):
- The Amazing World of Gumball (which began in 2011) never showed cellphones as rare, but in early episodes only the well-off kids Masami and Tobias had smartphones, while the Wattersons kids lacking any cellphones (barring a horribly-outdated brick in "The Phone") is a sign of their Perpetual Poverty. By "The Best" (aired 2017), Gumball and every single kid in his class are shown using a video-and-internet capable cellphones.
- An early 2000s episode of Arthur had the local Rich Bitch, Muffy, as the only character known to have a cell phone. Later episodes have everyone owning one.
- Bob's Burgers does the "lack of cellphone to signify poverty" variant. From 2011 into the 2020s, the Belcher family only have a flip phone each for the parents and a third they only allow their kids to use for emergencies.
- Daria: The main character's parents both own cellphones, in the middle-late 1990's when this was comparatively rare and cellphones were the size and shape of housebricks. Helen Morgendorffer carries hers because she is genuinely in a high-status high-wage job (lawyer). Jake Morgendorffer carries his because he aspires to be in a high-status well-paid job.
- In "Brian Wallows, Peter Swallows" on Family Guy, Brian sings a song about how society has changed since the 50's, which includes a line about a businessman with a cell phone:
Those fancy cellphones, make people mumble "gee whiz, look how important he is, his life must rule!
He'll get a tumor, but on the surgery day, the doc will see it and say "Man, you must really be cool!"
- The 2001 short A Kitty Bobo Show: Cellphones was about a cat who recently got a cellphone. Kitty Bobo is constantly annoying his friends by bragging about his phone. In the end he breaks it and his friends all get cellphones, causing him anguish because everyone else has one but him.
- Almost no one in As Told by Ginger has a cellphone besides the rich kids.
- Charlotte Pickles' cell phone in Rugrats distinguished her as a wealthy businesswoman.
- Rich kid Lorenzo from Hey Arnold! has a cellphone at a time when pagers were still commonplace. This wasn't a sign of him being spoiled, rather that he was acting way too much like an adult businessman.
- In Hey Arnold! The Jungle Movie, which was made several years after the show ended, despite the evolving technology that took place over that time, Rhonda is the only student seen with a smartphone, to emphasize her Rich Bitch status.
- When Timmy goes to the 1980s in an episode of The Fairly Oddparents, he sees that Chet Ubetcha's short stature stems from radiation poisoning due to his human-sized cellphone.
- The first instance of a cell phone appearing in a Scooby-Doo series was in the Cosmetically-Advanced Prequel A Pup Named Scooby-Doo, where rich girl Daphne Blake had such a phone and was the only member of the gang with one. Subsequent shows would give nearly everyone mobile phones.
- In the modern folklore version of 1990s Russia, a cell phone is a stereotypical attribute of a nouveau riche New Russian, along with a Mercedes 600 and a crimson jacket.
- An urban legend from when cell phones were still a rarity: On a busy commuter train, some businessman is loudly chatting on a cellular phone, mostly with "important" sounding talk. Then an older man on the train suffers a heart attack. When other passengers and/or a conductor approaches the businessman to call 911 on his cell phone, he eventually sheepishly admits that the phone is a fake (and was obviously just trying to impress people with it).
- The Chinese nickname for cell phones is due to this trope; back in the day, they were most often seen being carried by Triad head honchos, so cell phones were referred to as 大哥大 ("Big Brother's Big [Phone]").
- Nokia tried to create a status cell phone with its Vertu line but assumed incorrectly that features of status wristwatches could successfully be carried over to cell phones, but this had a few glaring problems (i.e. the Vertu line was quite luxurious and fancy, like a Rolex, but wristwatches are much harder to misplace or drop on pavement, and don't suffer from planned obsolescence the way phones do). Vertu phones received scathing reviews, never caught on, and were eventually discontinued.