Product Spam Is Out Of Control And Must Be Stopped

Hundreds of nearly identical laptops, MP3 players, smartphones, and TVs–many from the same manufacturers–clutter the shelves of our stores and our lives. Enough already.


We are living in a new age of austerity. Environmentalism is no longer just a crunchy cause, but also a corporate mandate. Simple is good.

So why has product spam spun out of control? Perhaps HP (and others) didn’t get the memo? Whatever the reason, one thing is now painfully clear: Product spam must stop.

Spam Attack!


As exhibit A, check out Hewlett Packard’s new computers released yesterday. In fact, it’s practically impossible not to check them out: HP has coughed up a number of machines at the same time, and they’re filling the homepages of many a gadget site. There’s the Envy 15, the Envy 17, the Envy 17-3D for starters–all aluminum-bodied, chiclet-keyboarded units with a variety of internal specs and screen technologies. They’re otherwise very similar to each other, and don’t depart too far from the designs and specs HP has used in previous models. There’s also the new Folio 13 Ultrabook, aimed at the burgeoning ultra-light/heavy-on-performance laptop market. And the newly made-over Pavilion DM4, with refreshed audio internals alongside a nearly identical but “special” Beats edition. These machines join a stable of dozens of other HP machines on sale–the company’s website even carefully defines them for you as its Mini, Everyday Computing, Ultra-Portable, High-Performance, and Envy ranges. 

Great, you may think: A machine to suit nearly everyone’s needs, and everyone’s pockets. But HP isn’t the only computer maker doing this. A scan through Sony’s laptop offerings, Acer’s, Dell’s and so on turns up the same behavior. Everyone offers a huge array of machines, each with slightly different internal specifications and vastly different prices.

And it’s not just laptops. How about Klipsch’s new Lou Reed signature headphones? Apart from the slight redesign, the branded edition is almost identical to an existing Klipsch set. But let’s not pick on Klipsch, as there’s much more exciting fare to be offered by Sony: Its headphones page for the USA store lists seven different headphones designs for the “iPod/iPhone remote control” category alone.


What The Spec?

RIM just revealed its new BlackBerry Bold 9790 and Curve 9380 machines. The Bold has a 2.44-inch touchscreen, 1GHz processor, 8GB of storage, QWERTY keyboard, and an almost identical look and feel to the dozens of similar BlackBerrys that have preceded it. The Curve 9380 has a 3.2-inch touchscreen, no keyboard, NFC support, and a 5-megapixel camera–the “first-ever BlackBerry(R) Curve(TM) smartphone with a touch display,” the press release calls it. But turn the Curve off, and slot it on a shelf on a phone store next to the Android machines from HTC, Huawei, Samsung, Sony…and you’ll barely be able to single it out at a couple of paces distance.

Even Samsung, which is keeping things fairly consistent with its Galaxy lineup of phones and tablets (and is embroiled in a legal battle with Apple, which accuses it of cloning everything about the design right down to the boxes and promo materials), feels the need to sell a 10-inch Galaxy Tab alongside a 7-inch unit and a 9-inch unit.


Smartphones are a particularly interesting case to look at, especially if you at the work of companies like iSuppli. These firms hit the headlines with their informed teardowns of new hardware, and their smart backwards-engineering thinking to try to work out how much it costs to make these machines–thanks to their expertise in sourcing components. That’s where we get the bill of materials comparisons between phones from, and while gizmo geeks may love poring over the details, the casual observer will note that the difference in component prices between, for example, most top-level smartphones is measured in tens of dollars–not hundreds. A five-megapixel camera unit for one smartphone versus an eight-megapixel one for another costs only a couple of dollars difference nowadays, thanks to ubiquitous supply among competing Asian manufacturers, and yet consumers are charged a huge multiple of this difference in the end price.

The Shotgun Effect

All this is fuel for a skeptic to ponder if product spamming is a mask for charging consumers a spectrum of prices for superficially different products.


There are reasons for making multiple products, of course. There’s the shotgun effect, for one: If you can shoot multiple products at a market at the same time, you may find enough of them hitting their mark, pleasing the public and selling well–but you have to shoot enough at the same time to cover losses from the poor sellers with the good sellers. It’s also a move that also limits the amount of money and effort you spend in differentiating your products: Hence, spam. This approach is different to taking aim at the market with a specific, carefully crafted shot–a single product, which requires confidence you’ve got your aim right. 

You can also argue that the public has been trained to expect a diverse choice–consumerism has run rampant since Henry Ford offered just one edition of the Model T car, and by offering multiple similar products firms like Sony and HP can create an illusion of choice in the shopper’s mind.

From a production point of view, putting out numerous similar products also creates economies of scale with suppliers of component parts, efficiencies in design, simplicity in creating packaging, and so on. Rich Leigh of the 10 Yetis PR agency and the writer behind the Good And Bad PR blog, gets to see much of the efforts companies put into promoting their diverse product lines. “Whereas some market-leading manufacturers are confident in developing a few
products per division, innovating and releasing new iterations to keep
customers buying,” Leigh says, “certain manufacturers seem to rely on this
product-spamming.” From a PR point of view, Leigh thinks “although these releases may have slight
differences that serve different niches, it appears desperate or cowardly,
almost like the manufacturers are afraid to develop one or two products and
fully back themselves.”


Waste not…

One other downside to product spam could be high product turnover.

To put things in context: In 2009, it was estimated that 53 million tons of electronic waste was generated globally as people threw away products (the figure would be higher if you included waste material generated at manufacturing), and only 13% of it was recycled. 


In 2007 it was estimated 426,000 cell phones were decomissioned every single day in the U.S., many of course being tossed in the trash rather than being recycled–the statistic prompted an artist to create this image of what that pile would look like (each spec in the left hand part of the image is a phone–zoomed in on the right):”

In 2010, as a measure of how much worse this problem has got in a short interval, it’s thought the U.S. alonegenerated 3 million tons of e-waste, and China produced 2.3 million tons–with estimates that China will rapidly produce much more waste as its population embraces consumer purchasing more and more. By 2020, the UN estimates that e-waste in South Africa and China from old PCs will be at 400% of its 2007 levels, and 500% in India. In terms of cell phones, the figure is 700% for China, and 1800% in India.  

…Want not


But as well as e-waste, consider the intellectual waste of tech product spam. How often have you trawled the shelves of your local electronics store, comparing specs, price, look and feel of a new purchase? Did it ultimately perform remarkably differently to how a very similar–but different–product would have? If you remember Watership Down, the classic young adult novel and movie, you’ll recall the rabbits in the story have a behavior called “going tharn.” It’s when they’re confronted by dazzling headlights, and can’t make a decision on what to do: This sensation has been applied to the act of shopping for the dazzling array of consumer goods by Shari Swan, CEO of Streative Branding–and we’ve all felt it.

Leigh commented that all product spam does “is confuse your average consumer who doesn’t particularly want to spend days researching each purchase, forcing them to buy a simpler, more off-the-shelf alternative. In any industry, the scatter-gun approach rarely works.” Graham Hill, founder of Treehugger, took it one stage further, and alluded to the complexities of owning too much stuff (including gadgets) in a recent Ted Talk, suggesting “less stuff, more happiness.”


The Future Is Unwritten

It’s time for manufacturers to stop spamming us with a bewildering array of hugely similar products, sometimes with a dazzling array of names (DROID Eris, DROID Incredible, Curve, Bold, London, Zeta…or equally the MDRAS50-G, Series 7 Chronos 15.6, NP-RF711-S03 and far worse examples).


We’re not suggesting centuries of commercial practice be upended, as this makes no sense. It’s that more honesty in design and function should perhaps drive product ranges. One upshot of this happening could be that consumers could feel free to buy less, take better care of what we have, throw less away, and suffer less emotional pressure when shopping.

And finally, less spam would mean more time for all those talented folks in the R&D and design teams at major manufacturers to concentrate on innovating new ways for new products to actually improve our lives in meangingful ways.

[Image: Tumblr ThingsOrganizedNeatly]


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About the author

I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise. I've also got a PhD, and worked in such roles as professional scientist and theater technician...thankfully avoiding jobs like bodyguard and chicken shed-cleaner (bonus points if you get that reference!)