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Samsung's Guys and Dolls: Unpacking the Stereotypes In the Galaxy S4 Launch

How could a company as big as Samsung get its most important product launch of the year so terribly wrong? Can a bad launch damage end sales or is the device itself the only thing that matters? And what does a misguided production like this have to tell us about the management culture and mindset within Samsung?

Another day in the tech space, another cringe worthy, misguided product launch. On Thursday night it was Samsung's turn at Unpacked 2013 and - not one to be outdone by Qualcomm's recent antics at CES - Samsung chose to unveil its new flagship phone, the Galaxy S4, in a bizarre Broadway-esque stage show (yes, a stage show about a phone) held at Radio City Music Hall.

A cost of millions, an audience of thousands, a cast and crew of hundreds, a live orchestra, a live stream around the world... and yet another tech event trending on twitter for all the wrong reasons.

Watching the webcast, the BBC's veteran tech reporter Rory Cellan-Jones tweeted that the "S4 looks like a great phone but this presentation is making me want to hide under the table and whimper."

"I don't get offended very often," wrote Molly Wood, CNET's executive editor, "but Samsung's long parade of '50s-era female stereotypes, in the midst of an entirely other long parade of bad stereotypes, just put me over the edge."

Taking to Facebook last night, one of tech's best known voices, Robert Scoble summed up as follows:

Samsung really screwed up with its Galaxy S4 presentation. Whoever planned it should be fired. So, here's some rules.

1. Your presentation should NEVER take away from the product.

2. Your presentation should NEVER alienate some of your customers (the presentation was extremely sexist and tone deaf and that's not me saying that, it was Leo Laporte. I agree, BTW).

3. You should make it easy to understand the next features. Samsung made it hard to really get what's new here.

Check out the video from the launch for yourself after the break.

So how could a company as big as Samsung get its most important product launch of the year so terribly wrong? Can a bad launch damage end sales or is the device itself the only thing that matters? And what does a misguided production like this have to tell us about the management culture and mindset within Samsung?

Before I begin, let me be completely clear - I'm not writing a review of the product. Others who've had hands-on time with the device have already done that. While it doesn't look like an iPhone killer and the price has yet to be announced, the lighter, thinner Galaxy S4 does have some interesting developments like air gesture, eye tracking, a multi-language translation app and some novel camera features.

No, in keeping with the spirit of Samsung's theatrical production and as a tech marketer, I'm going to review the launch itself. Because Samsung's launch illustrated the S4's myriad new features with a cast of toe-curling stereotypes in a series of staged sketches that revealed a highly questionable world view - one which I think deserves closer examination.

The first thing we learn from the Samsung's big budget production is that men take the pictures and video, women and girls are there to pose. A dad can't film his petulant daughter's ballet recital because his camera phone isn't as good as a Galaxy S4. Dual Camera - where a picture of the person taking the shot is incongruously inserted into the picture or video taken - is there because "Dad always took the pictures", which made the family videos "look like a movie about a single mother". Yes, that's Samsung trying to get a cheap laugh at the expense of single mothers. Strap in folks because this car crash has only just begun.

The Eraser feature takes multiple pictures and makes a composite, letting you erase anyone who accidentally walks in shot and say goodbye to the photo bomb. Cue outdated mother-in-law joke, because "I can only erase her from the picture not my house, right?" quips the master of ceremonies, who has been teleported to the Samsung event from Miss World 1972.

The new Story Album feature, where photos and videos are automatically grouped together, helps a New York backpacker collate his many, many pictures of Brazil - or rather his many, many pictures of Brazilian babe Ana. Ana is equipped with a short dress and a head mic, but only four words to say. Shame they didn't make more use of the new translation feature, hey.

To illustrate the new and improved Group Play feature - where multiple devices can connect and play music in surround sound - a bunch of brainless, tipsy women supposedly at a hen party (that's a bachelorette party in the States) dance onto the stage, waving pink and yellow versions of the S4 - because we all know the product feature women care most about is the colour, right?

They explain how air gesture, which lets you control the phone without actually touching the screen, is super useful when your nails are drying, your hands are sticky from cooking or you've just applied sunscreen. Yes, these are the big life challenges women want technology to solve.

(Image: Screengrab from Samsung Unpacked)

We're even shown that the S4 touchscreen works when the master of ceremonies' shrill wife Vivian is wearing her opera gloves. Another spec sure to appeal to women.

"Maybe I should be doing the presentation," Vivian says to audience. Now there's an interesting idea, Samsung. Because what strikes me is that while many women were no doubt involved in the planning and production of this off-key event, the corporate mindset behind it comes from one place and one place alone - the boardroom. From there, it is refracted downwards through the chain of command. No surprise, the Samsung board has no women on it.

(Image: Screengrab from Samsung Unpacked)

"We are always listening to people from around the world" says JK Shin, President and Head of Samsung's IT & Mobile Communications Division at the top of his opening address. "Listening" in corporate speak all too often means receiving market research reports dutifully filed in by marketing outposts around the world.

But market research, seasoned marketers will tell you in hushed confidential tones, is like torture. It only tells you what you already want to hear. A board with a homogeneous make up and consequently a homogeneous world view is likely to be presented with market research that validates their pre-existing view of the customer base. Clearly, relying on this sort of "listening" is no longer sufficient when planning a global product launch.

Who cares anyway, you might say. It's not like real customers are logging in to watch the Galaxy S4 launch. It's just the tech industry talking to the tech industry, right? Absolutely. But the launch is a window on what Samsung thinks about hundreds of millions of customers like us. It reflects hundreds of thousands of Samsung hours spent figuring out the key demographics, positioning the product and actually developing it. And one thing was abundantly clear from this launch and its hokey use-cases - they don't understand how women think, work or live.

And that's a big problem for any corporation operating today. Look at the US, the audience Samsung was primarily looking to reach with its launch. US women are responsible for making or influencing 85% of all purchasing decisions. They purchase 50% of products traditionally marketed to men, such as cars and consumer electronics. And according to the Boston Consulting Group, this isn't just a US trend - it's increasingly a global one with one billion women now participating in the workforce, each influencing more than her fair share of purchasing decisions.

Samsung is no longer the South Korean chaebol it was twenty years ago, launching its products in the US from a run-down hotel so far off the beaten track that many journalists simply wouldn't go. Samsung today is a global corporation with truly global ambitions. It needs to better reflect its global customer base within its business and its boardroom or risk alienating millions of customers with misguided product marketing or worse, by creating products with features that real people don't actually want or need.

I don't doubt that the Galaxy S4 will go on to become one of this year's biggest selling phones. The device itself is appealing and Samsung's sheer marketing might will deliver the necessary sales, for now. But corporations who shut women out of their boardrooms, who persistently ignore the female customer voice or reduce it to outdated stereotypes - these organisations risk not just alienating half the addressable market but in the long term almost all of it. And I'm not just calling out Samsung here. I'm calling out Google for demoing the Nexus 7 using Bikini models. I'm calling out pretty much every automotive company ever. And yes, I'm calling out the Oscars.

And while it may be true that only techies and industry insiders were watching the launch of the Galaxy S4, the one dimensional thinking behind it will be amplified outwards through Samsung's billion dollar advertising campaigns. It will reverberate through our consumer culture, subtly reinforcing stereotypes that many people - both men and women - are working hard to leave behind or negotiate around. It will inform the way tens of thousands of Samsung staff are trained, how new employees are selected, and existing ones rewarded and promoted. It will influence the next generation of Samsung products and their features. It will impact every customer interaction. It is indivisible from the Samsung brand. And I for one won't be buying.