I don’t know how many millions of dollars BlackBerry paid singer-songwriter Alicia Keys to take her post as the company’s official “Creative Director.” I only know that it was millions too many.
That’s not a reflection on Keys as an artist, or really even as a person. If I were a world-renowned musician, and a well-regarded company came calling with a bagful of money and an honorary corporate title, I’d be stumping for them before you can say “sellout.” I have no issue with celebrities making a quick buck at the behest of a corporation. Rather, my quarrel is with the corporations themselves – BlackBerry and other companies that follow the ridiculous practice of enlisting a celebrity to push their product.
This is nothing new, of course: famous people the world over have been conscripted into marketing duty for major brands for decades, if not centuries. That’s the reason we’re forced to watch football players awkwardly stumble through commercials for local car dealerships on TV, and it’s why we’re confronted nightly by Shannen Doherty imploring us to use EducationConnection for our college-matching needs. This kind of trash is everywhere.
The implication that these spokespeople are actually using the products they advertise is always there, even if it makes positively no sense that Mark Sanchez buys his Buicks from the dealership down the road from you, or that Shannen Doherty has ever taken a single class of internet-college. It’s part of the schtick; it’s a white lie; we get it.
The problem comes when you have a celebrity endorsing a technology product at a major launch event. Not because it’s any more disingenuous than the above examples, but because it’s almost always completely ineffective.
BlackBerry isn’t the only tech company to have done this, but it’s the most recent, so it gets to be today’s bad example. Like many others, I was at the launch event this week, the first half of which blew me away. Despite the fact that I’d seen BB10 in action before, I wasn’t expecting the company to come blasting out of the gate with such a compelling new array of features and such a (relative) head start on its app catalog. Plus, the hardware looked good, and even BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins, normally the picture of stern emotionlessness, was having a good time. The room was filled with the spirit of excited optimism. It was intoxicating.
Then Keys came out. After the typical bout of excitement that follows a celebrity’s initial reveal, her new role as “Creative Director” was announced, and the crowd fell silent. She immediately started reading from the teleprompter, using more corporate buzzwords than I’ve ever heard from the mouth of a musician. After running down a superlative-laced list of all of BB10′s new features, Keys said she wanted to “further enhance this concept” of “switching from work to play mode through Balance,” and that she was looking forward to working with “content creators” to “inspire creative projects.” We were then treated to a mawkish video montage of creative people … creating, with the help that (apparently) only a BlackBerry can provide.
Seriously, just watch this, and see if you can spot one iota of authenticity anywhere within its three-and-a-half minutes:
God, even the funny “dating” allegory seems forced.
Don’t misinterpret me: I’m not saying Alicia Keys is stupid, or otherwise incapable of handling the responsibilities BlackBerry is purporting to assign her. I’m saying it’s disingenuous, it’s an obvious stunt, and that everyone in that audience who didn’t draw a paycheck from the artist formerly known as RIM saw right through it.
And that sucks, because the product itself -the new BlackBerry- is actually pretty cool. As I said earlier, the first half of the presentation was quite compelling, even though it was basically a public rundown of features we already knew about, on a pair of devices we’d already seen. BlackBerry didn’t need to prop itself up with Alicia Keys; its new platform would have generated plenty of headlines based on its own merits.
I’m not saying it was a total disaster. The faux “appointment” of Keys to a made-up position isn’t going to harm the new company’s brand, and it’s already generated a fair amount of needed publicity (e.g., this article, and about forty just like it from other outlets). Also, it harkens back to RIM’s glory days, to a time when BlackBerrys were bona fide status symbols, being hawked by musicians even in the absence of an explicit advertising relationship.
But none of that matters when you’re dealing with a roomful of press much more interested in seeing your actual product than any canned statement stuffed into the mouth of a celebrity-turned-fake-suit. BlackBerry’s enlistment of Keys to promote its new platform falls into the same category as Microsoft’s groan-worthy use of Jessica Alba to promote Windows Phone, and Samsung’s ham-fisted attempt to graft Baz Luhrmann’s coolness onto the underwhelming Galaxy Note 10.1. It’s a waste of time and money, it makes everyone feel a little dirty, and it says you don’t have enough confidence in your product to let it stand on its own two feet. Please, manufacturers: stop doing it.