Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Camouflage Marketing: Making it OK to Buy What We Want

I want to talk with you for a few minutes about vibrators--and, yes, those kinds of vibrators.

I just finished an article by Rachel Maines called “Socially Camouflaged Technologies: the Case of the Electromechanical Vibrator” in Carroll Pursell’s American Technology.  In it, Maines argues that there are certain products and technologies which, while sold legally, are expected to be used either illegally, or in a socially unacceptable manner. To be successful, these kinds of products demand not just marketing, but camouflage marketing.

One such product is the electromechanical vibrator, at least as it was offered in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Here are the five things you need to know about this product (and I’ll leave it to you to read the article for the other five things you want to know):
1. Electromechanical vibrators were marketed in the popular press from the late nineteenth century through the early 1930s in the guise of a modern, professional instrument designed to cure (the creatively defined disease of) female hysteria. In particular, advertising for vibrators leveraged the prevailing belief that electricity was a healing agent, and took advantage of the fact that more and more homes were being wired.  Once vibrators began appearing in stag films (if you’re too young, look it up), this marketing camouflage was inadequate. Indeed, marketing of the product did not resurface until social change made it unnecessary to disguise the use of the product.

2. Marketing of electromechanical vibrators, at least until the 1920s, was often directed at physicians and emphasized the device’s respectability as a medical instrument (including its reassuringly clinical appearance) and its efficiency. Hard as it is to believe now, treatment for hysteria might comprise up to 75% of a physician’s practice in the nineteenth century.  (And you thought American innovation was all about the post-it note and the light bulb.)

3. 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’s urges the considerate husband to give his wife “A Gift That Will Keep Her Young and Pretty.”

4. Advertising of electromechanical vibrators did not appear in magazines selling for less than 5 cents and more than 25 cents per issue. Market segmentation suggested that readers of the former were unlikely to have access to electrical current, and readers of the latter were more likely to respond to ads for spas—another product benefiting from camouflage marketing.

5. 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.
I didn’t do the inflation accounting on that last number to express it in today’s dollars, but suffice to say that there was a lot of "camouflage marketing" going on in 1919, if you know what I mean.

Maines lists other products that have been sold actively using this same technique. For example, distilling technology was sold during Prohibition as “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 na├»ve as to believe that all purchasers intend to break copy protection only to make backup copies of legitimately purchased programs and data.”

I took a tour around the Internet, seeking more examples of camouflage marketing.

Planning to be in a brawl tonight? How about some brass knuckles (which are illegal most everywhere in the world)? I found a great spot to buy them, and all you need to know is that a set of knuckles is “For novelty purposes only. Makes a fine paperweight.”  I found a site for rolling papers which noted that “The site you are entering sells tobacco related products and accessories.” Just as I thought—rolling papers for all those people still rolling their own tobacco.  Bittorrent is "the global standard for accessing rich media over the Internet." That’s better than “Bittorrent: You too can rip-off HBO,” or “Bittorrent: Smarter than Napster, and richer too.”

And then, 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." Poor camouflage perhaps, but camouflage marketing nonetheless.

I have a theory that there is an emerging group of “ungreen” products, like McMansions, SUVs and bottled water, which may one day have to practice camouflage marketing in order to survive. How’s this? “The SUV: For when your hybrid can’t make it through the snow.” Or, “Our McMansion, because you can't blame us for wanting lots of kids.”

It’s pretty clear that, 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 is all about legitimizing the sale.  Especially if the sale eventually shows up on your doorstep in an unmarked brown box, with the UPS driver giving you one of those knowing smiles.