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Palm's racy ads spark protest, parody

The new ad campaign--featuring a nude woman holding a PalmPilot--has led to complaints and a parody, which in turn prompted a Palm response.

Palm Computing's new advertising campaign, featuring a naked woman, has drawn protests, a racy parody, and now letters from Palm's legal department.

Palm Computing launched itsSee Q & A: 
The future of Palm Computing "Simply Palm" campaign in March, in support of its new Palm V and Palm IIIx handhelds. Several of the ads feature a seated, naked woman holding Palm V devices, evoking parallels between the beauty and line of the female body and the sleek Palm V, Palm says.

Critics say the ads suggest something far more basic: pornography. These groups have taken to the Web to criticize and mock the ad campaign.

Jason Kottke posted--then later removed--parodies of the print ads on his personal Web site, 0sil8, with the tag line: Simply Porn. Kottke's site featured naked women in suggestive poses with strategically placed PalmPilots.

"I just thought the ads were kind of goofy," Kottke said, noting he understands that Palm was trying to use the "beauty of the female form to make a commentary on the stylishness of the Palm V. But I think it came across very clumsy, and ended up being: Sex sells."

Palm, however, is simply not in the mood for the protests. The company's legal department contacted Kottke last Wednesday, and requested that he remove the parody from the Web site.

"It's an infringement of our trademark," said Elizabeth Cardinale, a Palm Computing spokesperson, who concedes that the company has received complaints about the ad campaign.

"We had hoped that the technology market would have taken a more refreshing approach to advertising--and not make the same mistakes of the car and liquor ads from two decades ago, which ignored and diminished the purchasing power of women," according to a CyberGrrl editorial. "We'd like them to acknowledge that half of their customers are women who are savvier than [they were] 20 years ago."

The ads are, of course, hardly the first to use sex to sell a product, and many observers have hailed the campaign for using an eye-catching layout to bring the handheld to the mainstream market. Palm is also likely trying to blunt an attack from rival Microsoft, which is expected to launch an advertising campaign later this year in support of its new color palm-size PCs, which compete head-to-head with the monochrome PalmPilots.

But protesters say the ads set an unwelcome precedent in the male-dominated technology industry. "It's not like the car industry where you see babes draped over hot rods," said Owen Thomas, who has criticized the ads in an editorial in Maxi Magazine. "You don't see women fondling Cisco routers," in advertisements for networking equipment, he added. The editorial runs with pictures of the ads.

But though Kottke has taken the Simply Porn images off his site, the controversy lives on. Several other sites have begun hosting the pictures and Kottke has been deluged by emails. "People are being fairly supportive," he said. "Most [emails] are in the 'fight the power' vein." is one of the "mirror" sites hosting the parody images. "I believe[Simply Porn] is pure parody, and qualifies as protected speech. Jason, by taking the Palm ads a little step further, demonstrates the foolishness (on many levels) of the original ads," the site proclaims.

Palm is going to have a difficult time erasing the image from the Internet, especially now that other sites have posted the pictures. "I think we've kind of proved that you can't put the cat back in the bag," Kottke said.

Moreover, Kottke's is not the only Web site questioning the campaign. "Simply Palm? Simply dumb--and unlikely to help Palm move its heavily-male user base to a broader demographic," wrote Thomas in his editorial. "As much as you may hate Bill Gates, Windows CE devices offer similarly slick interfaces--without the in-your-face sexism."

The ads are "pandering" to Palm's demographic base, which is "heavily skewed towards rich male executive types," Thomas said in an interview today.

Palm defends the ads
Not so, Palm says. "We're actually trying to attract more women with the Palm V than ever before. The Palm V is more elegant and thinner which is more appropriate for female users whose hands are smaller," Palm's Cardinale said.

In addition, all of Palm's female executives, including the president and the vice president of marketing, signed off on the campaign, she said.

Thomas fears he is playing into Palm's hands by generating additional publicity about the ads, but says: "If Palm thinks by misbehaving and putting out a bad-boy image that they'll move units, they're sadly mistaken."

"If any woman ever wants to feel disrespected, marginalized, or outright ignored as a viable customer, just take a look at this advertisement for PalmPilot. The digital device might be lightweight, it might be intuitive, it might be the perfect electronic organizer for women, but who can tell by this ad?" questioned online zine WomenZone.

Palm has no plans to pull the ads, but is responding to each complaint, the company spokesperson said.