The Cool Kindle? On How (Not) to Sell E-Books

While wandering through a vast wasteland of over 200 cable channels the other night I happened across a BBC America marathon of Top Gear. While that show is in itself ripe for sociological analysis, what stopped me dead in my proverbial tracks was one of the advertisements shown during a commercial break. It was for the Amazon e-book reader the Kindle, and it showed a photogenic male and female duo debating the relative merit of printed books versus Kindles. For your reference, I have embedded a streaming copy from the company’s YouTube channel below.

The establishing shot shows the two (young, white) actors standing in front of a neutral white background. The woman holds an ordinary hardcover book, while the man holds a Kindle. Cut to a close up shot; the woman looks at the man and says, ‘That a Kindle? I only read real books’. ‘Well I’m reading a real book,’ the man protests amiably. They then debate the relative merits of ‘real’ books and e-books, focusing on how both can be read in intense sunlight. (A much-touted technological breakthrough of the E-Ink screen used by the Kindle and some other competing e-book readers is that, unlike other laptop, tablet, or mobile phone screens, it is visible in all of the same conditions that a printed page would be.) They then discuss how both can be used to keep your page. It concludes with the woman asking to see the man’s Kindle.

This commercial is striking for two reasons. First, it does not, as similar commercials from Apple and T-Mobile attempt to do in order to distinguish themselves from their competitors, suggest that the Kindle is in any manner functionally superior to a printed book. Both can be read in the same light conditions; both can be used to keep your place for you so that you can return quickly to your page after an interruption. The ad’s underlying message, rather, may be distilled into on simple message: Using printed books just isn’t cool.

Furthermore, it strikes me as no coincidence that the Kindle user is male and the ‘real’ book reader is female. The tech business is heavily skewed male, as is the proportion of early adopters of any new technology. Even Wikipedia is mostly edited by men; populist suggestions that it is edited by ‘everybody’ is nothing short of symbolic violence. And given that the fiction reader is more likely to be female, it comes as no surprise that coercing women into Kindle adoption should be one of Amazon’s marketing strategies.

The use of the term ‘real book’ to contrast printed tomes with e-books is pervasive; I’ve even heard teenagers use it. And this cultural mindset is only one of the hazards confronting marketers trying to convince people to lay down ‘real money’ for ‘virtual’ books that do not provide a universally superior experience of use. (I write the term ‘use’ because not all uses of books involve reading. One obvious use for which printed books are unequivocally superior is interior decorating…and before you laugh consider furniture company Ikea’s stake in this debate.) So instead, the geniuses at Amazon think it’s better to tell the world that print kinda makes you—yes, you, young lady—look dumb. Can they be serious? Haven’t they heard the pre-e-book era phrase ‘book learning’?

Casey Brienza is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Cambridge and Sociological Imagination’s Mediated Matters columnist.

Categories: Mediated Matters, Visual Sociology

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