Why Your Kid Will Never Ask You for a Stereo

Getting “a good stereo” was one of those rites of passage into adulthood when I was young. You got your own place, and the stereo was usually the highest priority after a bed and things to make food with. Sometimes higher.

No more. The stereo, the boom box… Dead. Over. Gone the way of the transistor radio. As this (politically incorrect by American standards) ad I saw in a French subway station says:

Image: Ad for Beats Pills bluetooth speaker by Radio Shack (it gets better — or worse — so keep reading).

Nowadays, it’s all about mobile and bluetooth. Bottom line: a portable bluetooth speaker is what your kid will want for Christmas. And you should get one too. Your kid will think you’re cool(er). These speakers are the must-have, 21st-century device for playing music. No muss, no fuss, you simply take it wherever you go, send the music on your mobile device to the wireless speaker via bluetooth and — instaparty. You can use them at home too, to play the music on your computer and other things, which I’ll go into later. There are tons of bluetooth speakers out there, with a wide range of sound quality, features and aesthetic appeal (mostly lack thereof, if you ask me).

I became a true believer just a few weeks ago in a Swiss train station…

Across from me in my train to Lausanne were two handsome, well-dressed men talking tech in English. So of course I eavesdropped on the whole conversation, being a tech blogger and lover of serendipity. And handsome men.

As we got off the train, I smiled and said to Handsome #1, “You never know when you’ll be sitting across from a tech blogger in a train in Switzerland. So whatcha got?” At which point he smiled back gorgeously and opened his dufflebag to produce a cute and curious object. I never get excited about gadgets, but for some reason, I found this one very appealing, and I’m sure it wasn’t only because of the adorable retro elephants… Seriously, though, I’m a sucker for good design, and the object he was holding (the UE Boom), definitely had that delectable Euro high-design look to it. In a word: #class.

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Image: Rory Dooley, Senior VP Ultimate Ears, holding the limited edition “Tippsy” model UE Boom featuring cover design by Jason Maloney.

Then Rory placed the object in my hands… The look of the gadget had already piqued my interest, as you know. Holding it, I could feel the quality; it was solid, but not too heavy to carry in my purse. And handling it was a tactile delight, thanks to the texture of the unique material covering the speaker and the attractive and functional rubber strip that runs the length of it.  Rory took out his iPhone, tapped here and there, and suddenly my hands and the entire station were filled with rich, loud sound. It turned heads. It was awesome.

I’d heard and held a bluetooth speaker for the first time just a few months before this. It was light and flimsy and had such tinny, weak sound quality that I dismissed the whole concept. At home, I AirPlay the music on my iPhone through the set-top box to my TV (which is connected to “the good stereo”). I sometimes listen to music on my iPhone with my earbuds when I’m out and about. But at my age, I couldn’t really see myself needing one of these toys; it’s not as if I often feel the need to pull a speaker out of my purse and start an impromptu rave in a park in Paris…

Since Switzerland, however, even if I don’t hold a flash rave, I can see myself taking a bluetooth speaker on a picnic. Or to the bathroom for a long, hot soak (I’ve lost more than one pair of earbuds to the tub). Or into the basement if I need to be digging around in there for a while. Or on the road to use in my hotel room. Or to the house of my friend who had the sucky bluetooth speaker. Endless possibilities, as you can see.

Unfortunately, gadget-makers seem to be unaware that women buy tech.

I know one of the reasons I’m not into gadgets is that they’re generally just too dude. Too butch. Too ugly! Manufacturers of gadgets seem to completely disregard the WAF (“Woman Acceptance Factor” on French and German wikipedia, but “Wife Acceptance Factor” on the English one, hello #everydaysexism), and the fact that we spend tons of money on tech and toys.

We are essentially invisible to them. In an article I wrote here not too long ago, I touched on the fact that “women’s” magazines neglect tech, and that tech journalism neglects women (although Mashable has come a very long way in just a couple of years, to become my favorite tech lifestyle blog). And just the other day, in The Guardian, I read Women’s magazines ignore technology and demean women, which expands on the topic of the glaring absence of tech in women’s mags:

Women spend more on smartphones than men, they spend one and a half times as much on technology and influence 57% of new technology purchases. The glossy mags have yet to acknowledge that women are now fully involved as technology consumers.

It’s easy to see who the target for bluetooth speakers is if you look at the marketing: it’s the 18-35 year-old male, of course. But makers of tech toys need to wake up, which the Atlantic article Sorry young man, you’re not the most important demographic in tech makes crystal clear: “it actually turns out the majority of technology users are women in their 40s, 50s and 60s.” (Hey, that’s me! Hear me roar! We are here!)

Imagine how much adopting we’d do if these companies actually acknowledged our existence…

And also, gadget companies, you need to reflect on the implications of the 36% of young adults ages 18-31 living with their parents (Pew research study, August 2012). Mom is present. Mom is paying attention. Mom should be your sweet spot. Or at least one of them.

Even more unfortunately, gadget-makers seem to be unaware that women are people.

Now, before you write me off as some frigid, man-hating prude, please note how this article began. But I have a bone to pick with the people marketing these gadgets. So to speak.

Let’s take a look at Beats Pills from the boombox ad above, for example, and their lingerie-clad babes with open mouths and large red cylindrical objects, etc.:

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I don’t really need to comment, do I? Didn’t think so. And guess what else, Radio Shack? Your “#uwantit” hashtag promotes rape culture and I’m #notbuyingit.

(Who the hell raised the boys who are making these ads? Do they have daughters? Would they watch their own garbage with their little girls?)

I was dismayed to find that the UE Boom campaign targeting the US market was worse… The premise for this series of videos was that music can start a party anywhere and do other things for you, including “get you laid.” But in the “Can music start a party anywhere?” video (I didn’t — couldn’t — watch them all), it was less about the music than it was about the — how should I say this — set decoration…

In the video the shots below were taken from, UE leaves the realm of metaphor altogether and unabashedly instrumentalizes women. In the first image, some guy is essentially using a thong-and-wet-t-shirt-wearing woman as a device to clean a windshield.

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In this next shot, it’s pure, gratuitous objectification. This poor girl, a gadget herself, rather than a human being, is doing what I can only describe as a spread-eagle handstand twerk in some guy’s face. (I’m sure there’s an industry-specific term for this move, but I don’t know it). In a laundromat. And there was a kid in that laundromat, a boy of about 11. What are you teaching little boys? Shame on you. And what, pray tell, does any of this have to do with the quality of your speakers??

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UE was somewhat redeemed in my eyes, however, by its European marketing, which takes a radically different tack, with a nice young man who goes around doing things like getting seniors to sing and make beatbox noises while he plays his Boom. The more people he can get to play along, the more points he gets. Again, #class.

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(These two video campaigns emphasize some drastic cultural differences between the US and Europe… America, it looks like you have some growing up to do. And some manners to learn.)

Sex sells anything, quality sells itself

Ultimate Ears may not have had women or their tastes in mind when they designed their lovely gadget, but they do have an Italian woman designer doing the color design. Despite the demographic their website clearly targets, their product has wide appeal for the same reasons that Apple products do: looks, quality, class. I’m sure the brand will ultimately benefit from having had the guts to break out of “the boy’s row” and create an object that appeals to discriminating people of either gender and all age groups who have good taste and demand quality.

Now if only they’d fire that “music can get you laid” guy (and give someone like me his job instead).

What can we do?

Should we buy products whose advertising denies our existence or even treats us all like blow-up dolls? Probably not. But how do we make our objections known without denying ourselves things we may want or need? The boys aren’t going to change their puerile ways if we leave them to their own devices… That’s why organizations like The Representation Project exist, and why we should support them.

I admit I want a UE Boom. It’s the only gadget other than the iPad mini that has ever made me drool. It’s the only portable bluetooth speaker you can use in stereo: get two of them and turn them into a pair of speakers using their iPhone app. It’s the only one that can be used as an alarm clock (after that party in your hotel room, you can set it to wake you up with a song from your phone or your preferred streaming service). And it’s the only one featured in this year’s Apple gift guide (which tells me I do, indeed, have a good eye). If you want more details, the ladies at ChipChick did a nice review.

Chances are I’ll get one. Or two. But if I’m going to be a sheep led to the consumerist slaughter, at least I won’t go quietly. Both of those handsome men will read this article. And lots of other people too…

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