New products need to be sold by geeks, not celebrities

By Nathaniel Mott , written on January 31, 2013

From The News Desk

Celebrities just can't get tech endorsements right. You'd think it would be an easy job -- all you have to do is say that you like [product] because [reason] and cash a check. Yet somehow these types of deals tend to go sideways more often than not, raising the question of whether or not celebrity endorsements have any place in the technology business.

Technology companies seem to approach celebrity endorsements the way they approach other problems: Even if it hasn't worked for any other company who has tried it, there's got to be some new approach that will get results. Whether it's Motorola giving limited edition Xoom tablets to Golden Globes attendees, Alec Baldwin and Seth McFarlane having alien tentacles crawl out of their respective orifices, or the new, "bring a famous woman to your press event" trend championed by Nokia, Microsoft, and BlackBerry, there's always something slightly different going on.

Yet, again, things fall apart. The most recent example of an endorsement gone wrong happened at the launch of BlackBerry 10. Alicia Keys was announced as BlackBerry's new Creative Director and asked to talk about why she signed on and what she likes about the new operating system. She talked about her long-time relationship with BlackBerry, how other, sexier platforms (her words) eventually caught her eye, and how the Z10 brought her back into BlackBerry's warm embrace.

Except, as the New York Times' Bits blog notes, Keys has been Tweeting from her iPhone fairly recently. (Sidebar: When did Alicia Keys' choice of smartphone become Times-worthy news?) So much for monogamy, huh?

Keys isn't alone in her dalliances, either. The now-infamous Tweets from Oprah espousing the wonders of Microsoft's Surface tablet attracted plenty of attention and snark from the tech community. Not because of the Surface itself -- though that hasn't gotten the best reception either -- but because Oprah Tweeted her message from her iPad. That's like talking about how much you love Pepsi between sips of Coca-Cola.

Shilling for tech companies is probably a tough gig. It's not like slapping your name on a perfume bottle or something -- these are tools that people can actually see you using, and the Web cares just enough about product endorsements to track you down and see if you're lying. So here are a few handy tips that should help future celebrity endorsers:

1. Stop using Twitter: See, this rule could have been "Stop using Twitter from devices other than the one you're trying to sell," but Keys has shown that people can and will look through your Tweets and check to see what device they come from no matter what you've been Tweeting. So it's probably best for you to just not use Twitter at all. Go ahead and thank Keys for that.

2. Do an event, a commercial, and then get the hell out: Jessica Alba pulled this off pretty well. She talked about how much she loved Windows Phone 8 during the operating system's launch, emphasized how busy she is, what with running a company and being a mom and being, you know, famous, and then she did a quick commercial. And that was it. She didn't grab a phony title, like Keys, and she was low-key enough that no one cares what she uses to Tweet, unlike Oprah.

That's really all it takes. Oh, and for posterity, here are a few tips for tech companies looking for a celebrity endorser:

1. Don't bother: Consider your audience. Do you think anyone at your press conference is going to care that Jessica Alba or Alicia Keys showed up? You shouldn't. This is the connected age, damn it -- all you have to do is run a simple Twitter search to witness the snark come crashing over your (probably costly) marketing ploy.

2. No, really -- don't: See above. Even if someone else -- you know, someone who might be persuaded by a celebrity endorsement -- finds out that Alba or Keys thinks one platform is "pretty fly" (a direct quote from Keys) they probably won't rush out to purchase that platform. Anyone gullible enough to purchase a smartphone because some celebrity or another showed up at your event is probably gullible enough to buy whatever smartphone the kindly salesperson at their carrier's local store tells them to buy.

Celebrity endorsements work for fashion or fragrances. "Hey, if you want to be like me, you should splash these chemicals all over yourself" is a time-old message that many people understand and can support.

Tech is different. Unless someone purchases an overpriced, diamond-studded phone from Vertu, everyone has just about the same device. "Hey, I buy the same exact smartphone your brother-in-law with the beer gut and Cheetos stains buys. You should too!" isn't quite as appealing as that other message.

Or, as Andy Warhol said:

What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.
Replace "Coke" with the smartphone platform of your choice and that passage is just as prescient now as it was a few decades ago.