Can Jay-Z make HP notebooks seem cool?

Advertising deconstructed.
Oct. 16 2006 6:46 AM

The Celebrity Laptop

Can Jay-Z make HP notebooks seem cool?

The Spot:A man in an elegant pinstriped suit is filmed from the shoulders down. As he describes his various hobbies and entrepreneurial projects, he makes hand gestures illustrating each one. For instance: "Love playing chess online," he says, opening his hands as though opening a chessboard. And voilà: A computer graphic of a chessboard appears in midair. The man moves a virtual rook, and then the chessboard evaporates. Or: "New Frank Gehry plans for my team in Brooklyn," he says, rolling out an imaginary blueprint that pops to life as a basketball arena. "My passport says Shawn," he tells us—poof, a digital passport appears in his hand—"but you may know me by another name." Some text reads: "Jay-Z: CEO of Hip-Hop." As the spot ends, the announcer says, "HP Pavilion Entertainment notebooks … The computer is personal again." (Click here to view the ad.)

Screen-capture of HP ad.
Jay-Z's HP ad.
Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

The problem with HP's notebook computers, according to HP marketing executive David Roman, is that they aren't "on anybody's shopping list." When consumers set out to buy a new notebook, they might consider Macs, Dells, and IBMs, but HP rarely enters the thought process. The brand has a poorly defined image. When you think Mac, you think fun and creative. When you think Dell, you think online ordering and wallet-friendly deals. When you think IBM, you think pricey craftsmanship. And when you think HP, you think … well, nothing in particular.

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The idea behind this current campaign is to create, from scratch, a personality for the brand—preferably one that appeals to college kids. (Both because they buy a lot of notebooks and because it's good to lock in brand loyalty at an early age.) But how do you cook up an instant personality? And how do you ensure it will be hip and likable?

Answer: You borrow a personality from somebody else. In this case, from rapper and hip-hop mogul Jay-Z. Other spots in the campaign feature gold-medal snowboarder Shaun White, hip-hop producer Pharrell, and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. (Forthcoming spots will use French film director Michel Gondry and Brazilian author Paulo Coelho.) These celebrities are famous but not too famous, sometimes underground but never too underground, 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. Choosing the perfect celebrity endorser is always a tricky task (Bob Dylan in a Victoria's Secret commercial? Not a good fit.), but I think HP has pretty well nailed it here.

What's more, they've deployed their celebs delicately. Instead of trumpeting the endorsement ("Look who's shilling for us! Are we cool yet?"), they've underplayed it—to the extent that they don't even bother to show the celebrities' faces. They've taken a cue here from Nike, which has long used a similar tactic to great effect. Nike ads routinely show some megastar for a nanosecond, with no identification whatsoever—leaving viewers to catch the reference on their own (and congratulate themselves for doing so).

Screen-capture of HP ad.
Mark Cuban's HP ad.

The thing that first caught my eye about these HP ads, though, was their spectacular visuals. The ads are captivating. When Jay-Z unfolds his imaginary chessboard, or Shaun White plays his imaginary guitar, there is a smooth, effortless flow to the graphics that suggests your HP notebook will make computing just as easy and fun. According to Roman, the hard part was finding the right balance for these graphics: Too real, and you'd miss the concept that this is a virtual chessboard from inside Jay-Z's computer; too cartoony, and the ad would look silly and undignified. Perhaps the best graphic effect appears in the Mark Cuban ad, when he reveals that his hard drive still contains the e-mail in which he asked his wife out on their first date. After Cuban's hands conjure up the square e-mail window, it softens into a tablecloth and flutters downward. Wineglasses and a candle materialize atop it.

I have two problems with this campaign. First, while viewers will enjoy the ads, I'm not so sure they'll remember what they're for. There's no great hook here to identify these as HP ads, instead of, say, Toshiba or Compaq ads. One reader e-mailed me to say she loved the spots … but she misidentified them as Dell ads. HP has tried to establish, as a branding cue, a drawing of a human hand filled with uneven, ornate writing. But even this isn't all that distinctive. It's ripped off from the cover design for Jonathan Safran Foer's second novel.

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. Might be nice to see a spot with Tina Fey or Sofia Coppola. Don't college chicks buy computers, too?

Grade: B+. Interestingly, some of the ads (including Cuban's) are only viewable on the Web. Though they were just as expensive to create as the TV ads, HP opted not to buy television time for these spots. According to Roman, this was the plan from the outset. HP decided that Web ads have become radically more effective of late, and thus that it's worth it to spend money on high production values. You can expect to see many more big-budget, Web-only ads (such as this one for Smirnoff Raw Tea) in the near future.

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