Digital Life


The news about computer company Hewlett-Packard these days is all about the weird corporate scandal there; sudden firings, congressional probes, even criminal charges.

So for HP, the challenge is to make its products as memorable as its problems. Seth Stevenson, ad critic for the online magazine Slate, says HP's new ad campaign shows the company can at least do something right.

Mr. SETH STEVENSON (Ad Critic, Slate): In the words of a company executive, HP laptops just aren't on anybody's shopping list. Consumers might seek out a fun and creative Mac or a wallet-friendly Dell. But when you think HP, you think nothing in particular.

So the company's new ad campaign is trying to create a personality from scratch, mainly by borrowing a personality from someone else.

(Soundbite of commercial)

JAY-Z (Rapper): I've got my whole life in this thing. Check out this new song I'm mixing.

Mr. STEVENSON: We see a man in an elegant pinstriped suit filmed only from the shoulders down. He starts by saying he has his whole life in his laptop, although we don't actually see a computer.

Instead, as he describes his various hobbies and entrepreneurial projects, he makes hand gestures. And slick computer graphics are conjured from his fingers. For instance...

(Soundbite of commercial)

JAY-Z: I was playing chess online.

Mr. STEVENSON: ...and a chessboard appears on which he moves a piece.

(Soundbite of commercial)

JAY-Z: This game's over. I wonder if he knows.

Mr. STEVENSON: Then he conjures a three-dimensional blueprint for a basketball stadium.

(Soundbite of commercial)

JAY-Z: A new Frank Gehry plans for my team in Brooklyn.

Mr. STEVENSON: Wow. Who is this faceless guy with all the cool stuff in his laptop? A passport appears in his hand.

(Soundbite of commercial)

JAY-Z: My passport says Sean, but you may know me by another name.

Mr. STEVENSON: And finally, a laptop shows up with some text on it that says, Jay-Z, CEO of hip-hop. Other spots in the campaign feature gold medal snowboarder Shaun White, hip-hop producer Forelle(ph), and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.

These celebrities are famous but not too famous and known more for actual achievements than for empty tabloid hype. They're the kind of people you believe would use notebook computers for all sorts of important stuff.

I think HP has pretty well nailed its celebrity endorser choices here. What's more, they've deployed their celebs delicately, not even bothering to show their faces.

They've taken a cue here from Nike, whose ads routinely show some mega-star for a nanosecond, leaving viewers to catch the reference on their own, and congratulate themselves for doing so.

But the thing that first caught my eye about these HP ads was their spectacular visuals. The ads are captivating. Perhaps the best graphic effect appears in the Mark Cuban ad.

(Soundbite of commercial)

Mr. MARK CUBAN (Owner, Dallas Mavericks): I keep every single e-mail. This is the one where I asked my wife out on our very first date, 10 years ago.

Mr. STEVENSON: After Cuban's hands bring forth the square e-mail window, it softens into a tablecloth and flutters downward. Wine glasses and a candle materialize atop it.

(Soundbite of commercial)

Mr. CUBAN: I get a thousand e-mails a day. Fans know they can e-mail me all the time, and they do.

Mr. STEVENSON: I have two problems with this campaign. First, while viewers will enjoy the ads, I'm not so sure they'll remember what company they're for. There's no great hook here to identify these as HP ads instead of, say, Toshiba ads.

One reader e-mailed me to say she loved the spots but she misidentified them as Dell ads.

My second problem with the campaign: where are the women? HP has yet to mix in a female celebrity. And it has no immediate plans to do so. It might be nice to see a spot with Tina Fey or Sophia Coppola.

I give this campaign a B-plus. Interestingly, some of the ads, including Mark Cuban's, are only viewable on the Web. According to HP, this was the plan from the outset. The company decided that Web ads had been radically more effective of late and thus that it's worth it to spend money on high production values.

I think we'll be seeing a lot more slick, Web-only spots in the coming years.

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