For me the word “pad” is most immediately and vividly associated with helicopter landings, floating lillies, and the totally sweet places where bachelors live. Feminene hygiene products don’t really enter into it. When I was in college, I briefly worked for something called Wordnet, a project at Princeton University that seeks to create a comprehensive dictionary based on how people associate words. For example, “light” and “dark” are strong associations, as are “green” and “money” or (at least until recently) “Brad” and “Angelina.” If someone had presented me with the combination of “pad” and, um, you-know-what while I was working for Wordnet, the association in my mind would have been almost zero. Shows how much I know about how the other half lives.
A lot of people think Steve Jobs and co. were as clueless as I was, but I think there’s another possibility. While they may have underestimated the potential reaction, they must have had at least some idea of how women would initially hear the name. In a world where corporations span borders and, in the case of Apple, command loyalties as intense as any country, they perhaps thought that they could change such a powerful resonance. Their belief in Apple’s sterling brand and incredibly successful marketing was so unshakable that they thought they could overthrow the associations the word already had.
The iPad story is not about whether Steve Jobs employs enough women, but rather about how one of the world’s greatest brands foundered on the rock of culture. Long-standing mental associations, those things ingrained by experience in a world that is in some ways common to all and in others fractally diverse — the stuff of Wordnet — were too much for the marketing juggernaut and incredible self-confidence of one of the world’s most powerful corporations. In this sense, the iPad debacle is a victory of culture over corporate cult.
Update: Earlier I said that Brad and Jennifer were, until recently, associated. How could I say Jennifer when I meant Angelina?!