This is a post about vibrators--and, yes, those kinds of vibrators.
In “Socially Camouflaged Technologies: the Case of the Electromechanical Vibrator,” scholar Rachel Maines argues that there are certain products and technologies which, while sold legally, are expected to be used illegally, or in a socially unacceptable manner. The success of these products demands not just marketing, but camouflage marketing.
One such product, the electromechanical vibrator, was marketed in the popular press from the late nineteenth century through the early 1930s in the guise of a modern, professional, medical instrument designed to cure female hysteria, a catch-all diagnosis that might comprise up to 75 percent of a nineteenth-century physician's practice. Advertising leveraged the prevailing belief that electricity was a healing agent. Once vibrators began appearing in stag films, however, this kind of camouflage was inadequate. Marketing of vibrators did not resurface until social change made it unnecessary to disguise use of the product.
Home vibrators were marketed as benefits to health and beauty by improving the circulation and soothing the nerves. An ad in the 1921 issue of Hearst magazine urges the considerate husband to give his wife “A Gift That Will Keep Her Young and Pretty.” Advertising of electromechanical vibrators did not appear in magazines selling for less than 5 cents or more than 25 cents per issue. This suggested market segmentation of readers whose middle-class homes were being added to the electrical grid, but not so well off that they could visit a spa. The U.S. Bureau of the Census found 66 firms manufacturing these devices in 1908, and by 1919 the annual market was well over $2 million.
Maines lists other products that have been sold actively using camouflage marketing. Distilling technology sold during Prohibition was “Ideal for distilling water for drinking purposes, automobile batteries and industrial uses.” Today, burglary tools are marketed in some popular magazines “with the admonition that they are to be used only to break into one’s own home or automobile.”
“Most recently,” Maines tells us, “we have seen the appearance of computer software for breaking copy protection, advertised in terms that explicitly prohibit its use for piracy, although surely no software publisher is so naïve as to believe that all purchasers intend to break copy protection only to make backup copies of legitimately purchased programs and data.”
If you’ve ever been on the Seattle Underground tour, you’ll know that the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897 brought hundreds of prospectors into town on their way north to Alaska. Just coincidentally, there appeared an inordinate number of young women, most without visible means of support, who listed their profession as "seamstress."
Unlike traditional marketing, camouflage marketing isn’t about educating the consumer or creating a compelling value statement. The consumer already knows what it is he or she is buying. Camouflage marketing just makes the transaction possible.