Laptop gender wars: What your netbook (or Toughbook) says about you

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Yohn agrees. "Companies should take care not to over-emphasize the gender orientation of their products. To capture the widest appeal and to avoid reinforcing stereotypes that alienate, they should pursue specific styles and aesthetics that resonate with both men and women." Learned echoes that last point: "The challenge for so many consumer electronics companies is to be inspired and guided by the women's market, but not alienate men."

From the other direction

You may have noticed that my initial curiosity, about how someone's computer threatened his masculinity, led me to a number of discussions about marketing to women, not men. My initial queries were about "gender" in marketing, and so I was very struck that people came back to talk to me about women in particular. But ChristieLyn Diller, an adjunct professor of women's studies at Towson University, says that shouldn't come as a surprise. "From my educated opinion, this is rooted in the fact that our society, in all spheres, is rooted in the masculine generic, a byproduct of our patriarchal structure. Think of how we refer to everyone as 'guys' or 'mankind', etc. So when gender issues come up, it makes us think of the 'other' category, in this case women, without reference to the dominant group, men, which requires no explanation. Lesser groups require qualifiers to let us know that we are not referring to the dominant group."

"The challenge for so many consumer electronics companies is to be inspired and guided by the women's market, but not alienate men."

Yohn agrees, and believes that many marketers think along these lines -- to their detriment. "In the computer and electronics categories, when marketers think about gender-specific appeals, they think about women -- which is part of the problem. Many try to overcompensate for their natural inclination to target men and so the efforts seem forced or artificial."

Nevertheless, some of the experts I talked to did approach matters with masculinity in mind -- and believed that, in the world of tech, anyway, it was best to go beyond stereotypes. Mandy Minor, J Allan Studios, works on business-to-business IT marketing; she says that "experience has taught me that most B2B IT is still a man's world," but in her marketing efforts, she "never take[s] it to 'football manly' -- I keep my clients' messaging in the 'smart and in-the-know guy' territory." Similarly, Yohn cast a jaundiced eye on a campaign promoting Panasonic's Toughbook -- "some of their ads are so loaded with testosterone, it's comical."

The best of both worlds

If there's one common thread you'll notice in all of these comments, it's this: don't be heavy handed. Marketing too strongly towards one gender -- women, in most cases -- can turn off both the savvy women you want to reach and men as well. Learned says: "I often cite Apple as an example of a company that very effectively markets to women without making it obvious -- and who knows if they've ever done any actual 'women's market' research. It appeals to men for some reasons and women for some others, or maybe, just maybe, it appeals to a wide cross-section of people based more on other things, not gender, which makes for very good marketing."

But what about our Slashdot reader, wracked with anxiety over what his tiny, effeminate netbook said about him? It's true that no one technique is going to win over everyone; surely those testosterone-drenched Toughbook ads appealed to some folks. "Obviously it must be working," says Diller. "These companies make a lot of money by expanding to the 'gendered' market." Nevertheless, it's worth noting that a significant majority of the responses to that Slashdot post boiled down to "Women are talking to you because of your laptop, and you're complaining?" It seems that most of us, men and women, are OK using a cute laptop.

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