I'm back from CES 2014, where I spent time hefting a connected tennis racket, riding a Segway competitor, and drooling over a DeLorean. In my meanderings, I saw endless displays full of phone cases covered in rhinestones and pink zebra stripes. Business as usual. What turned my head was what I found at the Acoustic Research booth.
Acoustic Research was showing off its new "AR for Her" spring collection of tech accessories. The first thing I thought about was "Bic for Her," the much-maligned and ridiculed pen "designed to fit comfortably in a woman's hand." Is Acoustic Research stepping into the same mud puddle of stereotypical lady-pandering design? Yup.
The AR for Her accessories include a Bluetooth speaker designed to look like a purse; a cylindrical mini-speaker with a daisy pattern on top; and "fashionable charging cables," according to the press release. There's also a curiosity called the Zipstick, which is a backup battery, flashlight, and panic alarm made to look like a big tube of lipstick. Pinkish polka dots (the color is actually called "cayenne") are one option.
The press release for AR for Her is stocked with buzzwords like "flirty," "feminine," "runway-inspired," "fashionable," and "city chic." I expect it all started innocently enough. Someone said, "Hey, women like to buy gadgets, so why don't we make gadgets that really appeal to women?" And then things went south. They said, "So, what appeals to women?" And the answer was polka dots, purses, and lipstick. Fail.
"We certainly recognize that our product line is not for every woman, but we're proud to offer an affordable option for women who appreciate the design and colors featured in our Spring 2014 collection," Acoustic Research told CNET this week.
I don't mean to be singling out one particular company; Acoustic Research just happens to be handy. There have been plenty of others.
Honda, for example, came out with a pink version of its Fit in Japan. The car was advertised as helping to improve a woman driver's skin quality. I'm not making this up. It hearkens back to Dodge's ill-conceived 1955 La Femme car for women, a vehicle that came with a matching purse. It was a not a big seller.
Dell certainly stepped in it back in 2009 with its Della Netbook marketing drive that focused on important tech topics for women, like shoe shopping and downloading recipes. Have we learned nothing from the marketing stumbles of the past? I don't think Dell will ever try that sort of approach again, but other companies should take heed.
I imagine many tech companies are sitting around, scratching their heads, and wondering what women really want out of tech. It doesn't have anything to do with pink polka dots or lipstick-shaped gadgets. It has to do with great design and functionality. You know, the same thing every person wants from tech.
Nothing against pink, but...
I don't hate the color pink. In fact, I quite like it. I do kind of hate polka dots, though. I'm totally cool with products that come out in several colors, with pink being one of them, like the usual rainbow of iPods. That's just giving people options, not playing down to stereotyped cultural concepts of what women want from technology.
Marketing tech to women doesn't have to be a bad thing. I'm confident it can be done in an intelligent way that emphasizes the underlying technology, smart design, and usefulness, rather than its resemblance to make-up. In the meantime, if I want to buy an Acoustic Research product, I'll go for one of the normal-looking Bluetooth speakers, not the one with polka dots and a purse strap.
Update, January 16: Acoustic Research contacted CNET with a response to this article. We have added some of the company's comments to the story.