The Shock of Your Life

Posted inID Mag
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Some things in life are supposed to be pretty. Flowers are supposed to be pretty. Eastern European swimsuit models are supposed to be pretty. Overpriced Italian sports coupes with bad gas mileage absolutely must be pretty. Weapons systems, however, need not be. Maybe they should even be a bit ugly, but don’t tell that to the folks at Taser. This past January, the company introduced the C2, an elegantly streamlined stun gun that looks more like a ladies’ electric shaver than a weapon capable of reducing the most fearsome attacker to a quivering mass of flesh. It even comes in metallic pink.

“We aim to make the products fit today’s society,” says Steve Tuttle, Taser’s vice president of communications. Indeed, the latest cell phones and PDAs were design inspirations for the 6-inch, 7-ounce C2, which should rest comfortably next to either of those gadgets inside a handbag.

Though Taser was founded in 1993 to provide “citizen defense” products to the general public, law enforcement and the military now contribute the overwhelming majority of its overall revenues, which dipped 30 percent, from $67 million to $47 million, between 2005 and 2006. In the face of these losses, the C2 is a shrewd effort on the company’s part to return to its roots and make nonprofessionals a more substantial portion of its market. And though its representatives won’t come right out and say so, Taser is clearly hoping a significant segment of that market will be female. Promotional materials seem to play on women’s fears: An online brochure features a pink C2 superimposed over a deserted parking garage, portentously shot from ground level at an oblique angle—the point of view of a dropped keychain.

The C2’s challenge was to capitalize on those fears with a design that wouldn’t intimidate prospective buyers, be they male or female. As Tuttle states, the weapon was specifically designed by Taser’s in-house team to look “less ominous than a black gun-shaped device” and “stylish and nonthreatening in terms of its form.” In addition to pink, it comes in powder blue, silver, and black.

The C2 may be cute, but it packs a serious wallop: A pair of metal probes, connected to the unit by thin insulated wires and fired via compressed nitrogen, delivers a phased electric shock that incapacitates the body’s neuromuscular system. Those probes have a range of 15 feet and need only contact their target (clothing will do) to be effective, though both probes must hit.

Taser claims its weapons are nonlethal—you can watch videos of the company’s executives taking shots to the chest on its website, and video blogger Amanda Congdon famously volunteered for a zapping at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show—but it has nevertheless drawn questions about their safety. In 2005, the Securities and Exchange Commission opened an inquiry into the publicly traded company regarding the propriety of its financial statements and the veracity of its safety pronouncements. Investor lawsuits followed, and last March Amnesty International called for police departments to suspend purchase and use of Taser weapons until independent studies verified the company’s claims. As it is, consumer models are illegal in several states, including New York. Taser does require that buyers pass a background check, and every time the weapon fires, it disperses a cloud of coded tags that allow police to trace the spent cartridge back to the purchaser.

Caleb Crye, principal of Crye Associates, a firm specializing in public safety design, says he finds the C2’s new look impressive. “It sidesteps all the visual references to a gun. It’s just what would work for this market.”

There’s a rub, though: A friendly design that appeals to buyers may be too sexy to intimidate potential attackers. Imagine the scenario suggested by the brochure: a lone female approached in a garage by a male assailant. “If she pulls out a pink razor-looking thing, he’s not going to perceive it as a threat,” says Crye. When it comes to deterrence, it’s hard to beat that ugly pistol.

Taser has an answer for this: an optional laser sight that pushes the C2’s base price up 50 bucks to $349.95. “We have found that the most successful use of force by law enforcement isn’t the deployment of a Taser system, but good verbal commands combined with the display of the Taser system’s laser sight,” says Tuttle. “Most suspects only see the front of the Taser system and can’t tell what it is, but the laser sight has been most successful in getting their attention.”

That may work for law enforcement officers on shows like Cops, but the average citizen isn’t prepared for confrontation. The C2’s range extends only 15 feet. That’s awfully close quarters. What happens if you miss? “We’re talking about things that a lot of ordinary citizens aren’t ready to think about, and aren’t prepared to think about,” says self-defense guru and handgun proponent Paxton Quigley, author of Stayin’ Alive: Armed and Female in an Unsafe World. “When you have a gun you can go to a range and practice shooting. I don’t know where you’d practice doing this.”

Challenges to the C2’s efficacy raise a broader issue: How relaxed should we be with weapons in general, and how can design help us find the right balance? Crye, who claims “the most fundamental right you have is to defend your life,” questions the “aesthetic dissonance” of the C2 on just those grounds. “The utility of the object is not correlated to the appearance of the object,” he says. “The person using it shouldn’t be comfortable with this being a harmless personal accessory. It’s a very serious product. It’s only to be used in serious situations.”

Quigley echoed those sentiments. “My feeling is, if you’re going to have a weapon for self- defense, why not have the most effective one, whether it’s a shotgun or a handgun?” she says.

Graphic designer Debbie Millman, president of the consultancy Sterling Brands, has other concerns: “Do they think you want to be more feminine when you’re self-defending?” she asks. “I actually think it’s sexist to think that somehow it makes it more palatable for women if it’s pink. It’s a superficial ploy to engage a female demographic that has not previously been engaged.”

Superficial or not, Taser is counting on the new model to boost its sagging profits. If it works, those who choose to engage the C2’s demographic in the future might be advised to do so with caution.

Mark Lamster is a New York–based writer and editor and a frequent I.D. contributor.