"Who wants a Stylus? You have to get 'em; put 'em away; you lose 'em—yuck! Nobody wants a Stylus! We’re going to use the best pointing device in the world…We’re going to use our fingers."
That was Steve Jobs in 2007, as he unveiled the iPhone to the world. But even five years after the unrivaled success of Apple’s smartphone and its subsequent touch-screen iPad cousin, competitors in the space are still heralding the Stylus pen as central to interacting with mobile devices—fingers be damned. A whole range of smartphones and tablets still come with a pen accessory; Microsoft showed off a Stylus in June when it revealed its much ballyhooed Surface tablet; and only this week, Samsung made the S Pen the key differentiator for its Galaxy Note 10.1 tablet. "The S Pen…really, truly changes the game," said Samsung Electronics America president Tim Baxter.
But even after over a decade on the market, it’s clear brands still have no idea how to market e-ink accessories. Looking back at years of promotions for Stylus pens, what’s readily apparent is how few benefits marketers can imagine for the devices—which is perhaps indicative of how little benefit Stylus pens actually provide consumers. Instead, the world’s tech giants—including 1990s-era Apple—have been forced to flaunt ridiculous, exaggerated, or downright fake use-cases for Stylus pens, in some desperate hope that they’ll actually appeal to consumers, rather than acknowledging their true impact: transforming digital text into bulky, childish scrawl. After all, who wouldn’t want the ability to adopt Perez Hilton’s penmanship?
Take Samsung’s commercials for the Galaxy Note smartphone, which wouldn’t be complete without its Stylus pen. In one ad, aimed at Apple fanboys, a line of customers is shown waiting outside what appears to be an Apple store in anticipation of Cupertino’s next device. That is until one slouching twenty-something in line catches a glimpse of a passerby’s Samsung Galaxy Note.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa, what is that?" he says. "It’s got a pen? This is awesome!"
Despite the fact that no one in the history of earth has ever uttered those words, Samsung then tries to make a big show of all you can do with the help of a Stylus pen: such as drawing a doodle on your Google Map or getting an e-ink autograph from football star Brian Urlacher. You see this repeated throughout commercials for Stylus pens: Often, the best demonstration of the technology is to show off randoms scribbles or signatures.
In that sense, perhaps the most difficult part of advertising a Stylus pen is actually advertising what a Stylus pen can do. In several commercials from tech companies, users are often just shown hovering the pens above their mobile devices. In the rare instances we get a peek at what happens when pen meets screen, the results are hilariously inconsequential. For example, in Asus’ ad for the Windows 7 Eee slate, a business owner talks to the camera, Stylus pen in hand. But when he actually goes to show us the Stylus in action (zoom to 0:25), he uses the pen to simply minimize a window, and then un-minimize another. Voilà!
Outside magically minimizing files, Stylus pens are often shown circling things and crossing things out. In tons of ads that feature Stylus pens, users are constantly shown looking at an image or a website or some product, and simply using the pen to circle things, point to things, or cross things out. In another ad for the Asus’ Eee slate, for example, a fashion blogger is showing doing all three (0:33): X-ing out one picture, circling another, and then drawing an arrow for good measure.
Of course, the real benefit of e-pens are to take notes—just as we used to do with traditional pens and pads of paper. The problem with this use-case is that it’s totally unclear why writing with a digital pen is better than using a digital keyboard—the latter is faster, cleaner, and more reliable. Which makes showing off productivity applications of the Stylus pen next to impossible.
In a promo for the HP Slate 500, the company struggles to demonstrate how users would use the device in the workplace: at the doctor’s office, in a restaurant, and so forth. Yet we never see the Stylus pen in action. For instance, when one suited businessman opens up Excel, he simply uses the Stylus pen to highlight a string of text…before using his finger to copy and paste it. (Who would use a Stylus pen to interact with Excel, anyway?) The doctor taps around the screen before throwing the pen in his pocket. And when we finally see a user scrawl some words on the device with a pen (1:38), it is so very painfully slow. Look how long it takes the user to write out "rear light"!
Stylus pens also give marketers the opportunity to bring artists into the mix to tout how awesome it is to draw things on smartphones and tablets. Rule of thumb: Wherever there is e-ink, there will be graffiti artists, architects, and graphic designers. My personal favorite is another ad from Samsung which features artists from creative agency Doubleday & Cartwright seriously trying to convince the public that they design products on the tiny Galaxy Note screens. It’s hard not to laugh when watching them hunched over their smartphones, squinting at what they’re drawing, and using the Stylus pen to cut and paste, expand graphics, design skateboards and clothing…especially when the office is shown with a dozen or so laptops and wide-screen monitors.
The justification? "To click all day is not that rewarding," says one designer. Adds another, after reviewing a design on a smartphone before shipping it off to the manufacturer, "Pretty metal."
And as for brands just manufacturing raisons d’etre, look no further than the Asus PadFone, which combines a tablet and smartphone. How do users answer a phone call and talk to a friend with such a device? With the help of a Stylus pen (1:37). Give the company credit—this is by far the most creative use case of any ad I’ve seen—but if you ever see someone actually talking into a Stylus pen on the bus, I’ll personally write you a digital check with an e-ink pen for the unit cost of an Asus PadFone.
Of course, when running out of functions for the Stylus pen, brands can always make them into some sort of fashion statement. Just as Apple did in the 1990s with its Newton tablet (the very pre-pre-pre-cursor to the iPad), which the company tried to tout as not only the go-to-business tool but the cool tech-fashion accessory. Rather than showing the pen in action—at the time it had very few appealing use cases—Apple chose to put the Stylus pen in its natural setting: in a meeting, in a phone booth, by a riverbank, in a café, a park, a conservatory, a bocce court even. With snappy camera zooms and pans of suavely dressed businesspeople jotting down notes on their Newton, Apple aimed to show the Stylus pen was something you take with you, wherever you go.
A similar, more recent example of this strategy comes courtesy of Arctic Accessories, maker of e-ink pens for iPads and Amazon Kindle Fires. There are loads of third-party Stylus pen makers. In Arctic’s case, though, the company tries to not only show that Stylus pens are Stylish but that they’re sexy too. In its commercial for the Architect Stylus, a thick writing device with about as much sex appeal as a tampon, Arctic shows how Stylus pens are what you now keep in your suit coat pocket—the modern day quill pen. Although the pen’s tip is as pinpoint precise as your big toe—so of course a professional architect would be using one—the commercial’s biggest stretch is that Stylus pens can somehow lead to flirtation. Fast forward (to 0:53) to see the architect respond to the Stylus-wielding femme fatale with a creepy, Herman Cain smile.
And if all else fails, there’s always one time-honored strategy: bash the original pen. Take the Palm Pilot, one of the most popular devices for the Stylus pen. This ad, dramatizing the drawbacks of pens (Stylus pens aren’t unreliable! Pens are unreliable! Look at that ink smudge! How will I ever remember what floor my meeting is on!?!), happens to be a spec spot. But still, it says everything about the fundamental issue with the marketing of stylus-based devices: If you’re having this much trouble making ads that make sense, maybe the product doesn’t either.