SEOUL – When Samsung unveiled a new smartphone at New York’s storied Radio City Music Hall, the Broadway-style spectacle was memorable not for technology but for a cast of giggling female characters who fantasized about marrying a doctor, fretted about eating too much cake and needed a man’s help to understand how to work the phone.
The stereotypes were blatant even for an industry where skimpily clad booth babes are a staple of trade shows and high-level female executives are a rarity. A backlash spread online as the event, live-streamed on the Internet and broadcast in Times Square, unfolded.
How could an international company that wants to be seen as an innovator and spends more than $11 billion a year on advertising and promotions so badly misjudge its audience?
Easily and often, it turns out.
A day before the Galaxy smartphone launch in March last year, the company was criticized in South Africa for using models in bikini tops to show its newest refrigerators and washing machines.
Some months later, it was derided for a video promoting a fast data storage device known as a solid state drive. Two men in the ad immediately recognize the device and understand the benefits, but a woman, who says she only uses her computer for simple activities such as looking at pictures, is befuddled.
Marlene Morris Town, a marketing professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, said the portrayals are “troubling” and imply that men are the sole target of the sales message. If women are the target, the implication is “they are significantly less competent and not able to grasp technology.”
Samsung is hardly alone in talking down to half of its potential customers.
Joking that gadgets made by LG Electronics distract attention from models, Facebook user Lee Sang-hoon collected two dozen images of the company’s products promoted by women with ample cleavage.
“Among men, we talk about how LG does breast marketing,” said Lee, who noted LG seemed to have toned down its promotions this year.
Perhaps because depictions of women as adornments and submissive helpers have long been the norm in South Korean commercials and print ads, audiences have rarely questioned how homegrown technology giants such as Samsung and LG Electronics portrayed women. Even as these companies became global names, ingrained aspects of their corporate cultures hardly changed. Some of Samsung’s blunders took place under female leadership. A top marketing executive in its mobile team was a woman and gave the green light to the Radio City Music Hall performance.
Heeding criticism abroad and at home, Samsung this year tried for the first time to dispense with young women in tight clothes for a TV launch in South Korea. It was a small but somehow bold step as sexualized product launches are a fixture that provide fodder for tabloids and TV and much publicity for the companies.
“In the past, it seemed that a lot of reporters were focusing on something else, not our TVs,” said Kim Hyun-seok, head of Samsung’s TV business.
But far from winning plaudits, Samsung became the victim of the cult it helped create.
Without models, news photographers and camera crews refused to shoot a new curved screen television at the Samsung launch in February. Instead, they asked female assistants hired to explain technical features to stand next to the TVs.
For some, the phenomenon reflects that leadership in the tech and advertising industries remains predominantly male.
“Decision-makers in the ads are nearly all men,” said Park Jae-hang, who worked at Cheil Worldwide, an ad and marketing unit of Samsung Group, between 1993 and 2009.
Ken Hong, a spokesman for LG, said the content of promotions boils down to what the audience wants.
“Using female models for tech product photos is popular with Korean readers, so the media request them,” he said.
When he distributes pictures to international media, he usually opts for product-only ones and tries to limit the use of models to situations where the size of the product needs to be emphasized.
Even as companies say they are giving consumers what they want, not every Korean agrees.
Cho Seon-young, a 29-year-old painter and gadget lover, said she skips articles with photos of women in tight clothes and heavy makeup holding tech gadgets. She would prefer that the articles focused on the devices.
“Those tech devices are high-class and expensive, but these women make those goods look cheap,” she said.
Minjeong Kim, an assistant professor of Women’s Studies at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, said the imagery has real consequences for how women are perceived. “They are inviting, they are smiling, and they just stand there,” she said. “They reinforce the feminine ideals that women should be nice and submissive.”
In the last few years, Samsung has increased its marketing and advertising to promote its Galaxy smartphones that have surpassed Nokia and Apple in global sales. But the criticism of its marketing has been a setback in the attempt to reinvent itself as an innovator and a trendsetter.
Samsung said it is making “concentrated efforts” to ensure its communications around the world respectfully portray women.