June 3rd, 2009

Celebrities: Spot That Phone!

By Elizabeth Woyke

Manufacturers and carriers are increasingly putting their phones in celebrities' hands in hopes of driving sales.

Savvy TV watchers know that 24’s Jack Bauer uses Sprint phones, the Gossip Girls have Verizon handsets and much of the cast of The Hills goes for AT&T. The characters broadcast their preferences via the logos emblazoned on their cellphones, often without saying a word.

Like everything else in TV land, their choices are far from coincidental. Cellphone companies ranging from manufacturers to wireless operators are increasingly getting their products into celebrities’ hands for exposure that money can’t buy. These “product integration” deals weave cellphones into the story lines of TV shows, movies and even music videos, exchanging air time for cash.

While these partnerships aren’t new, they’re becoming more common. A few years ago, music videos with integrated products were the exception (see “Usher’s Favorite Phone"). These days, even chart-topping singers like Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Katy Perry are striking placement deals. All three, in fact, incorporated Nokia phones into recent videos.

In Spears’ “Womanizer” video, a man wields Nokia’s 5800 XpressMusic handset--one of the company’s newest touchscreen phones--to check his calendar and record videos of Spears. Aguilera sports the same phone in her “Keeps Gettin’ Better” video.

Perry, of “I Kissed a Girl” fame, has created two videos with two different Nokia devices. In “Hot N Cold” she plays a jilted bride whose singing image pops up on her would-be groom’s Nokia N96. In her most recent video, “Waking up in Vegas,” she flashes the 5800 at a poker table and in a convertible.

There are plenty of “Spot that phone!” moments in films, too. Daniel Craig, aka James Bond, toted Sony Ericsson’s Cyber-shot C902 in Quantum of Solace. (Sony Pictures distributed the film.) Jim Carrey spent much of Yes Man brandishing his Nokia 6300 phone. Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow sported LG Electronics cellphones in last year’s Iron Man.

LG struck a similar marketing deal with Paramount Pictures for the new Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, which opens June 24. Several characters--LG declined to specify them--will use LG phones in the film. LG also created a limited edition of its Versa phone, customized with video clips and a Decepticon logo, to promote Transformers. The company has an affinity for movies that place technology “center stage,” says Ehtisham Rabbani, LG’s vice president of product strategy and marketing in the U.S.

While plentiful everywhere, product placement is perhaps most effective on TV, where collaborations can run multiple seasons. Verizon has paired with Gossip Girl for several years running. So has Sprint with 24.

During any one season, AT&T is likely to be juggling multiple integration deals. Besides its regular presence on American Idol, the company recently worked with Dancing With the Stars, Fox’s Fringe, the CW Network’s Privileged, TBS’ Dinner and a Movie and the Guy’s Choice Awards.

AT&T also has close ties to the MTV series The Hills, having featured some of its young stars in commercials last year. This past season, the company provided phones to Hills actress Lauren Conrad during the show’s premiere and finale parties. Conrad ended up using a red LG Shine to show a photo of co-star Lauren “Lo” Bosworth during an interview and a Samsung Eternity to answer a live video question from fans.

Sometimes it’s not clear whether a product plug is paid. In the show 30 Rock, Tina Fey plays a character (Liz Lemon) who frequently calls attention to her iPhone. Show representatives have said that its product endorsements are not paid.

Justin Long’s iPhone usage in the film Zack and Miri Make a Porno has also sparked questions. In the comedy, Long’s character frequently plays videos on his iPhone. Since Long also portrays the “Mac” in Apple’s popular “Get a Mac” commercials, some have wondered whether the iPhone appearances were Long’s personal choice, paid for by Apple, or coincidence.

It’s difficult to pinpoint how much these integrations boost sales or subscriber numbers, because most companies are promoting multiple phones across TV, film and video at any given time. They also continue to run more traditional ads in places like newspapers. But AT&T says placements are a popular and effective marketing tool.


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