Note to Samsung: The Pen Doesn’t Sell

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Samsung’s Super Bowl commercial had the makings of greatness. Like the company’s previous “Next Big Thing” ads, the TV spot begins with a send-up of Apple’s biggest fans, getting agitated by the long wait to buy the newest product. Then, a Samsung user shows up with a phone that makes them question their loyalty.

It’s an amusing setup, and Samsung had millions of Americans waiting to see the payoff. So what did the company do with this huge, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to promote the Galaxy Note smart phone? It advertised a stylus.

The angle brought mockery on Twitter, as InformationWeek’s Eric Zeman points out. At the Super Bowl party I was attending, friends wondered aloud why they needed a pen for a touch-screen device, and worried about what would happen if they lost it. I imagine an alternate take of the commercial, in which the Apple fans shuffle back to their line unimpressed instead of breaking into song and dance.

(VIDEO: Samsung’s 5.3-inch Galaxy Note: Giant Phone Meets Tiny Tablet)

Here are the problems with using the pen as a selling point for Samsung’s Galaxy Note:

  • It conjures memories of the Palm Pilot, a product and a brand that became obsolete a long time ago.
  • You can’t explain the subtleties of the stylus in a flashy television commercial. The important detail — that it’s used for specific applications and doesn’t just work in place of your fingers — is lost upon the average viewer.
  • The stylus appeals to niche cases, like artists who want to sketch or journalists who want to take notes. Those are tricky ideas to convey to a large, mainstream audience, especially in the span of one TV commercial.
  • Having a pen means having an extra accessory to worry about — something viewers may consider as the actors pass their gadgets around for everyone to try.
  • Just a guess: nobody in the history of consumer electronics has ever squealed with amazement the words “IT’S GOT A PEN!?”

As ZDNet’s Jason Perlow argues, people should not dismiss the stylus just because of a bad commercial. I agree. I’m not knocking the stylus as a feature of the Galaxy Note. But in defending the pen, even Perlow comes up short on mainstream uses (for the Galaxy Note in particular). As a mass-market selling point, the stylus doesn’t work.

Jared Newman / TIME

What Samsung should have advertised was the Galaxy Note’s display — that beautiful, 5.3-in., 720-pixel Super AMOLED screen. I have seen the Galaxy Note up close. The screen is mesmerizing. While staring into it at CES 2012, I nearly forgot that the stylus existed.

Given the cult stereotype of Apple’s biggest fans, Samsung could have easily played up the Galaxy Note’s screen as a holy sight to behold. You might argue that a gigantic smart phone doesn’t have much more mainstream appeal than a stylus, but on camera, the Galaxy Note’s jumbo size doesn’t seem so extreme. Is an oversize smart phone something I’d want to carry around all the time? I’m not sure. But after gazing at that display for a few minutes at CES, I was intrigued. I think mainstream consumers could be too.

I say all this because I care. I think there is a market for tablet-phone hybrids, but the only product of this kind to launch in the U.S. so far — Dell’s Streak — was a flop. Samsung has a more promising product. Too bad the company flubbed its biggest marketing opportunity yet.

Good call on getting the Darkness, though.

(MORE: AT&T Gives Samsung Galaxy Note Price and Release Date, Calls It a Phone)