The Gadgetification of America: The last frontier?

Swiss_army_knifeGadgets have a certain fascination, don’t they?  They promise technological enablement.  They make us see further, hear better, sort more intelligently, think more adroitly, connect more, er, better.  Gadgets extend the body and the mind.  Where would we be without them? What would we be without them?  Personally, they can have my laptop and cell phone when they pry them out of my cold, dead hands. 

But gadgets have been mostly a male obsession.  Indeed, there is not a male reader of this blog who has not been mocked by a women for being a little gadget crazy.  Women sometimes refer to "boys and their toys" as if gadget glorification were a male mania.  This holiday season, we will indeed find guys in the kitchen talking heatedly about wireless access, HD TV and Xbox360 refresh rates.  Women, many of them, will just roll their eyes, as if to say, "Guys!  What are you going to do?"

But times, they are a changing.  The P&G success stories of the last few years have been gadgets.*  Swiffer and swiffer extensions are little technological enablements.   Some of this is due to the influence of IDEO there.  Little machines is what they do.   And some of it is due to the margins to be made on appliances and the refills they demand.  But I believe there may have been a time when the female householder would look at something machine like, gadget-ish, and said, "No gadgets for Gidget, thank you just the same."

There are other hints of a shift in the way in which women see technology.  The renovation of the kitchen has seen the introduction, around 15 years ago, of the industrial stove.  Industrial stoves!  These are large, out of scale, indelicate and capable of feeding several hundred people at a time.  No body "plays house" with one of these monsters.  This is industrial strength.

And what about the Suburbans now so much in evidence.  In my parts (tiny town Connecticut), the car of choice used to be a white Volvo station wagon.  It said, "I am practical but not inelegant."  Suburbans are not much smaller than a mobile home.  To drive one of these cars as a "station car" for toing and froing from the commuter line, well, unless your husband or one of your children, or you yourself, hold high political office, it’s really more car than you need.

It does look like there is a cultural development here.  Once anti-tech and gadget mocking, women appear to be moving away from their traditonal position.  And if the micro trends noted here actually reflect the same thing, we can track the macro trend accordingly.  Fifteen years ago, the industrial stove, 10 years ago the Suburban, and just a few years ago the great Swiffer trend. 

We might have seen this coming.  We might have made a bundle.  We could have started a Swiffer start-up and then sold to P&G for a heart warmingly large sum of money.  But, oh, no, most of us were too busy standing in the kitchen talking about baud rates and internet access.

* (from BusinessWeek, ref. below) In the past year [P&G]  has launched at least eight mechanical or electric gizmos. They include Febreze Scentstories, an electric air freshener machine that plays CD-like scent disks; Tide Buzz Ultrasonic Stain Remover; and Tide StainBrush, a battery-powered brush. It also introduced Swiffer Sweep + Vac, a device that combines a Swiffer electrostatic dust mop with a vacuum, and Mr. Clean AutoDry, a water-pressure-powered car-cleaning system that dries without streaking. Sales of all P&G’s gadget-related items grew 16% last year and now total about 8% of its $54 billion in annual sales. That’s up from 2% in 2000, estimates Lehman Brothers Inc. analyst Ann Gillin Lefever.


Berner, Robert and William Symonds. 2005.  Consumer giant is leading the way in building brands with mechanical gizmos. BusinessWeek.  February 7, 2005. here. (subscription required)

6 thoughts on “The Gadgetification of America: The last frontier?

  1. Steve Portigal

    This story (and many many others in a similar vein) made the rounds almost 2 years ago
    when CES did a special focus on women – or at least tried to – the annual gadgetpalooza offered up a spiffy pink banner which of course brought attention to the fact that even in trying to “get it” they really didn’t have a clue.

    In other news, the Simpsons did a nice paraody of the Leatherman tool ( – though you have to be careful when Googling for that phrase because ya never know what you might find) at a county fair type place where each arm (it’s a Swiss Army knife like device) unfolds only to have new arms with a range of special fixtures on it (ice cream scoop, flashlight, chopsticks, Allan wrench) unfold, and then other arms from that unfold. It was hilarious to see how many different gizmos the writers/animators could generate in this long gag. That was the height of gadget silliness, I thought.

  2. rkleine

    grant – your comments on diffusion of the suburban belie an unexpected mid-eastcoastal centrism. granted, the suburban has a mysterious cache for some. beyond those, imagine yourself the father of three, four, or five children. now imagine all the kids’ friends. now imagine the simple task of taking the afore said mass to the local dairy dream for a high caloric after school treat. no volvo need apply. nope, only a morman limo will do. i guess that means morman women are prototypeical feminine gagetazies?

  3. jens

    wonderful observation, grant.
    it is true.

    last night it was illustrated while meeting with a some friends for thanksgiving dinner in madrid.
    one couple came with their new born in the unbeatable swiss army knife for infant transportation purposes “the bugaboo” – the bogaboo chameleon in fact. my friend was explaining the practical shoulder bag that comes with – this here is where you put the diapers – and here go the bottle… and his french wife was going into the functionality details of that baby stroller in here nonchalant way.

    knowing her as kind of a passionate far-left wing socialist i pulled her leg about this very bcbg-ish baby stroller.
    “i may not like snobs too much” she replied “but i do appreciate quality.”

  4. Grant

    Steve, thanks, I am, as usual, late to the party. Best, Grant

    RKleine, I did say “in tiny town Connecticut,” but yes, good point, the thing is driven by demographic necessity, I guess. But do these cars have to be trucks. As I recall my mother could pack hundreds of small boys into her Austin. Mind you, by the time we got to the designated birthday spot (usually a movie theatre, sometimes a bowling alley) her sanity was hanging by a thread. This would make the Suburban the equivalent of the great room, more space for people to be hew to their essential natures, with the less call for the parental task of sushing and tutting (sp!). The “librarian function” of the parent can be dispensed with when kids have vast rooms and great cars to run riot in. Thanks, Grant

    Jens, thank you, I was trying to think of the name of that carriage, it is, as you say, a perfect case in point. Here in tiny town Connecticut, they sail down the street like clipper ships, with moms, less often dads, at the helm. Thanks!

  5. Ben

    Women are also falling under the spell of small electronic gadgets. You can thank the iPod for that. Small, stylish, and fun, the iPod is the object of endless adoration amongst my girlfriend and her friends. They gush endlessly about their slim white and silver boxes as if they were a pet or an invisible friend. The gf’s iPod is called Polly and has her own email address. Polly has a wide wardrobe ranging from tight latex to pink fur. When paired with her portable “Aztec” Lansing speakers, Polly is the life of any party and a golden opportunity for the gf to show off her DJ skills and impeccable taste in music.

    The gf is also in love with her Treo phone and tiny Casio Exilim camera. Though all the gadgets are “computers”, her opinion of actual box and monitor PC’s ranges from indifference to bitter disdain. She associates computers with work, not a good thing. The tiny gadgets, on the other hand, are pure fun.

  6. liz

    Grant! You, the guru of

    “Brands, at their best, and among other things, bundles of meanings, some of them robust, some of them delicate, all of them poised to speak to one or more segments and to deliver unto them an understanding of not just what the product does but what it stands for, how it may be used, for whom it may stand, and where it is located in the larger scheme of things, commercial and cultural.”

    What is the bundle of meaning of the Burban? “I care about my childrens’ safety” is one I’ve heard; “It gives me better visibility” is another.

    The “need the seatbelts” is a little suspicious, when you start looking at the seatbelt/$ equation (factoring in purchase price, upkeep and licensing, and gas mileage), considering that there are alternatives. For example, the Mazda MPV has seven seatbelts, too.

    Burbans have captured some image, some meaning, apart from the high-passenger-capacity. If it were really all about the “Mormon Limosine”, the vehicle of choice would be one of those stretch econoline vans.

    As far as women and gizmos, hell, don’t ask me. I’ve carried a Leatherman (or some equivalent) for at least 30 years — until I lost too many to forgetfulness, getting on an airplane and forgetting the danged thing was in some pocket.

    Surely your belief that Gidget eschewed gadgets is a failure to segment the market. I think there have always been women like me, who enjoy well-made tools to do their work — but we were invisible to the boys in marketing.

    The gadget mocking has more to do, in my mind, with how money is allocated within the marriage. If there’s only one income, from the husband, and he’s happy to spend (say) $200 on a new power tool that gets used maybe once a month, but resists spending $100 on a dishwasher that gets used twice a day — well, who would not mock the husband’s love of gadgets?

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