SEOUL, South Korea – When Samsung unveiled a new smartphone at the storied Radio City Music Hall last year, 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 who needed a man’s help to understand how to work the phone.
The stereotypes were blatant, even for an industry in which skimpily clad booth babes are a staple of trade shows and high-level female executives are a rarity.
A backlash began spreading online as the event unfolded, live-streamed on the Internet and broadcast in Times Square.
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? Without too much difficulty, and often, it turns out.
A day before the Galaxy smartphone launch in March last year, Samsung was criticized in South Africa for using models in bikini tops to show its newest refrigerators and washing machines.
Some months later, the company 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 while a woman, who says she uses her computer only 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. The company’s promotion for a new curved TV was a woman in a reclining pose.
Among men, we talk about how LG does breast marketing, said Lee, who added that LG seems to have toned down its promotions this year.
Perhaps because depictions of females as submissive adornments have long been the norm in South Korea, audiences have rarely questioned how homegrown technology giants such as Samsung and LG Electronics portrayed women.
Even as these companies became global names, their corporate cultures hardly changed. Some of Samsung’s blunders took place under female leadership. A female executive gave the green light to the Radio City Music Hall launch.
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.
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 women hired to explain technical features to stand next to the TVs.
Samsung is preparing for the global launch of the Galaxy S5 smartphone next Friday.