POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Apr 7, 2014
SEOUL » When Samsung unveiled a new smartphone at the 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? Without too much difficulty and often, it turns out.
A day before the Galaxy smartphone launch in March 2013, 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 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.
Facebook user Lee Sang-hoon collected two dozen images of LG Electronics products promoted by women with ample cleavage. The company's promotion for a new curved TV was a woman showing off her thighs in a reclining pose.
"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 females as adornments have long been the norm in South Korean advertising, audiences rarely questioned the approaches of homegrown technology giants such as Samsung and LG. 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.
This year Samsung tried for the first time to dispense with young women in tight clothes for a TV launch in South Korea.
"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 television 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.
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," he said. But when he distributes pictures to international media, he usually opts for product-only shots and tries to limit the use of models to situations where the size of the product needs to be emphasized.
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."
Youkyung Lee, Associated Press