By Bhaswati Mukhopadhyay and Saumyadeb Chakrabarty
BANGALORE (Reuters) - When the 49ers were battling the Cardinals in a National Football League game earlier this year, a Facebook update by stun gun maker Taser proclaimed that the San Francisco-based team's "Taser formation" could be the tipping factor.
The company, whose main product is a lightning rod for criticism, is increasingly using blogs and social networks to promote new products and dispel anxieties about them.
Tasers, also known as conductive energy weapons, disable people with a 50,000-volt jolt of electricity, and have become increasingly popular with police around the world.
Taser's latest X3 gun, which can shoot multiple targets simultaneously, assumes the company's Facebook persona, evangelizing about products and engaging customers with football banter.
The 49ers did go on to win the game using their Taser formation, as the Facebook update said. And that was another small step for the company in taking its much-maligned guns closer to the people.
On average, the Scottsdale, Arizona-based company spends about $4 million a year in litigation-related expenses -- more than its annual net profit in 2008.
Taser currently has 46 pending lawsuits related to the use of its guns. One of the company's priorities is to reduce this burden on the company's numbers.
And this is one reason why the company has taken to blogging, Twittering, using networking sites and creating an online evidence "warehouse."
"We use Facebook and Twitter not only as marketing teasers, but also as a way to influence information in terms of making it fun and making it relevant to the younger generation," Steve Tuttle, Taser's vice president for communications, said.
The company has launched Evidence.Com, a website that collects video grabs of confrontations that can be used as evidence later.
The site works in conjunction with Taser's AXON gun, which comes fitted with a camera, and it allows law enforcement agencies to create secure groups to share evidence and collaborate on cases.
Taser guns are bought not only by the police, military and correction facilities, but also by individuals, casinos and companies' corporate security chiefs.
The company's stun guns, which have been featured in films such as "Hangover," "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," "Hannibal" and "Time Cop," are not considered firearms in the United States and are legal for civilian use in most states. In 2007, footage showing a University of Florida student being shot with a Taser gun surfaced on the Internet. Despite his pleas to "Don't tase me, bro," a campus police officer did just that. The phrase spread like wildfire, appearing on T-shirts and in commercials and a rap artist turned it into a song. In the same year, the death of a Polish immigrant at the Vancouver International Airport led to widespread media coverage and the setting up of a commission to study the effects of using conductive energy weapons such as Tasers.
Earlier this year, the commission noted that there had been more than 300 deaths in the United States and 25 in Canada associated with their use.
Reacting to the Canadian controversy and the commission's observations, Tuttle said, "It appears that the politics trumped the science. Most of the negativity comes from the lack of publicity about the correct use of Tasers."
Tuttle said the company disagrees with a few of the commission's recommendations and is readying a response. While traditional methods of communication were still the company's mainstay, he said, "We wanted to make sure we do not become a dinosaur, using only the traditional methods." The company said software like Evidence.Com helps it take data from devices and integrate it using advanced geospatial mapping technology to give police a real situational awareness of what is going on in their jurisdictions.
The latest post on the Taser blog talks about the delivery of the first batch of the new X3 guns to the Lee County Sheriff's office in Florida.
But what's in it for the readers of the blog? Well, they get an extra two-pack of cartridges and a free target with every purchase of the civilian C2 gun.