The CEO of Sony cameras was sitting reading his newspaper when a subordinate came into the room carrying a copy of Takarajima, a popular men’s magazine that sold in every corner of Japan.
As it landed on his desk, it was opened to a special page featuring Sony’s latest Handycam. After a quick glimpse, he sat up wide-eyed. Their team had missed a critical error that was rearing its head.
In the 1990s, home video cameras were wildly popular. Improvements in film quality and manufacturing made them available to an even broader market. Owning a camera no longer required breaking your bank account. The latest feature making the rounds was various forms of night vision. Sony’s camera introduced NightShot, which featured near-infrared technology.
Sony thought people would film critters on their back porch or each other during camping trips out in the woods. They hired famed ad agency Campbell Ewald Awald, which ran a now-famous print advertisement in magazines:
When they hit the market, Sony realized there was a bug in their design. No, you didn’t turn the camera on and instantly see through everyone’s clothing.
It was when you added a popular filter to the camera that the world suddenly turned into a nudist colony. After the Japanese magazine ran the issue about the bug, it created a feeding frenzy among journalists around the world.
Then, in our typical moral depravity, the demand for cameras with NightShot soared. Many of them sold for $2,500 instead of the original $600.
Unsurprisingly, the camera opened up a pandora’s box of legal problems and privacy issues. Reporters found 12 different websites featuring Peeping Tom videos and pictures of women who’d been out living a normal life.
The near-infrared camera, with the right white lighting conditions, would reflect light through clothing directly to the skin and bounce it back to the camera, illuminating a nude form. It was particularly effective in daylight and if the person was wearing dark colors or thin clothing, like a bathing suit.
These fabrics often absorbed infrared light rather than sending it back. You could see what underwear the person was wearing, their tattoos, and unfortunately, much more.
Reports came in of men hiding cameras under towels while at the pool and various theme parks. Then they sold those photos on their websites.
This was during a period of minimal online regulation. So when these ridiculous voyeur sites went up, they stayed visible for months and years before authorities caught on.
Avoiding a Reckoning With Law Enforcement
Sony immediately announced a recall of 700,000 cameras. It was the largest recall in company history. All of their vendors were frozen from distributing the HandyCams. Sony threatened swift disciplinary action against anyone who attempted to profit from the increased demand.
In Sony’s defense, they didn’t spin this product as being needed for medical science. Nor did they try to justify the product as useful to anyone other than wayward 13-year-old boys and middle-aged Peeping Toms. They ate the cost and moved on.
What’s interesting is that I actually owned one of these cameras around that time. I was around 16–17. It’s rather sad that I am feeling proud that I didn’t use my camera as others did. One shouldn’t feel proud for doing things they are supposed to do.
Unfortunately, my camera was eventually stolen a few years later. I don’t even want to know what happened to it.
It’s funny because I was discussing this marketing disaster with a group of younger people and they didn’t even believe it was a real story. They couldn’t conceive how such a thing could happen. It made me feel a bit old. But alas, there was indeed a Sony camera that turned the 1990s into a peep show.
One of the most important things to remember about PR disasters and mistakes in general: When you find out about a major mistake, act fast and take decisive action. Own it. It’s when you delay and let a problem fester for fear of losing money, or deflect blame, that things get ugly. As the saying goes, “The cover-up is worse than the crime.”