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‘Tone-deaf’ Samsung ad is a reminder that smartwatch safety still has a ways to go

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Emergency SOS features often require prior setup and have many limitations

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The Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 has SOS emergency features, but that doesn’t equate to having “freedom to exercise at all hours.”
Screenshot: Samsung

Samsung is under fire for a recent ad depicting a woman wearing a Galaxy Watch 4 and Galaxy Buds running alone in the middle of a city at 2AM. Critics have called the ad both “unrealistic” and “tone-deaf” in the wake of the murder of Ashling Murphy, a 23-year-old who was killed while running in January in Dublin, Ireland. The ad is oblivious to the dangers of nighttime running, but that makes sense since many smartwatch makers don’t seem to understand how their limited safety features may fail runners.

Samsung has since apologized for the ad, telling BBC Radio 1 that it hadn’t intended to “be insensitive to ongoing conversations around women’s safety” and that “the ‘Night Owls’ campaign was designed with a positive message in mind: to celebrate individuality and freedom to exercise at all hours.”

Samsung’s intent is understandable. The ad is meant to highlight how easy it is to use Galaxy devices together and “empower” users to leave their phones at home. For many people — especially runners — it’s a major draw for an LTE-enabled smartwatch. Many high-end devices, including Samsung’s Galaxy Watch 4 and the Apple Watch, also increasingly include fall detection and emergency calling features. In Samsung’s case, users can set up SOS alerts to notify designated contacts of their location and how to track them in “unthinkable” situations.

The thing is these features are not automatic and have their own technical requirements. Fall detection, for example, is something you have to choose to enable. If you don’t do this during setup, you may never get around to doing it while mistakenly believing it’s activated. Even if it’s enabled, it may not be considered “on” all the time. The Apple Watch, for instance, gives users the option to only enable fall detection during workouts. It’s easy to forget how you’ve configured this setting after a long time.

In some instances, emergency SOS alerts require an LTE-enabled version of a smartwatch. Garmin’s version usually requires users to have their phones on their person. Other watches need you to be connected to a known Wi-Fi network with Wi-Fi calling enabled. You’ll also have to take the time to designate your emergency contacts beforehand. In addition to setting these features up in advance, you’ll also need to know how to activate them on your specific smartwatch model. (While fall detection is automatic, SOS calling is often user-activated.) If any one of these things isn’t done correctly or you don’t have a good signal, you may not be as safe as you think you are.

Regardless of how smartwatches are marketed, they’re not true phone replacements, and you can’t always rely on their emergency features. Sure, it’s convenient to use NFC payments to buy a Gatorade at a local deli after your run. And it’s handy that you can stream your music straight to your wrist or don’t have to miss important calls while out on a quick errand. But it’s a wholly different situation when your safety is in question. Unfortunately, I’ve had my fair share of close calls, and when you’re afraid for your safety, it can be difficult to remember how to activate a smartwatch SOS alert among myriad other controls — especially if it’s not a feature you freshen up on from time to time.

For many people, safety while running outdoors is a real concern. A 2019 Runner’s World survey found that 84 percent of women had been harassed during a run while 70 percent of men had not. A disturbing 94 percent of women also said no one helped them while being harassed. And yet, tech-based solutions to alleviate this issue are still piecemeal. Some apps like Strava will allow you to edit your routes so that potential stalkers can’t see where you start or end a run. Other wearable devices, like invisaWear, create fitness bands that are powered by ADT and can connect you with emergency services if you feel unsafe but don’t actually track your activity. Garmin recently introduced a promising no-touch LED flashlight for nighttime runners on its 51mm Fenix 7X — a gigantic watch size that excludes most women.

So, while Samsung’s intent with this ad likely wasn’t malicious, it’s a sobering reminder that smartwatch and wearable tech has not gotten to the point where anyone has the “freedom to exercise at all hours.”

Correction May 4th, 1PM ET: A previous version of this article said invisaWear was owned by ADT, instead of powered by their tech. We regret the error.