A question inspired by this week's news that Research in Motion, the company that makes the BlackBerry, has become the chief sponsor for U2's next bombastic world tour: Who exactly is profiting from this deal? U2, like most big rock acts, has never been shy about taking corporate lucre, but it usually allies with companies that it claims share its change-the-world vision—the prime example being RIM's rival Apple. In 2004, Steve Jobs dedicated the first special-edition iPod in U2's honor; the 20 GB black-and-red model sold for $349, and U2 agreed to make some of its music available exclusively on iTunes. In 2005, Bono defended the deal with Apple by saying that the company shared the band's creative spirit. "Selling out is doing something you don't really want to do for money. That's what selling out is. We asked to be in the ad,"he told the Chicago Tribune. He added that Apple is "more creative than a lot of people in rock bands. These men have helped design the most beautiful object art in music culture since the electric guitar. That's the iPod. The job of art is to chase ugliness away."
If that justification sounds a little much, just imagine what kind of knots Bono will have to twist himself into to explain the band's new corporate partnership. Is the BlackBerry belt clip the most beautiful object in apparel since suspenders? Does checking your e-mail every five seconds also chase ugliness away? Alas, all we've heard so far is a comment from the band's manager, Paul McGuinness, that the partnership with RIM was indeed born of a "shared vision."
Still, at least U2 gets a concert tour out of the deal. The reward for RIM is much less clear. For one thing, celebrity endorsements are a terrible way to sell technology. Every tech company has tried it: Kevin Costner once shilled for Apple, Jerry Seinfeld and the Rolling Stones have pitched Microsoft. None of those efforts really moved the needle. In 2006, Slate's Seth Stevenson reviewed an HP campaign that marshaled Jay-Z, snowboarder Shaun White, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, and later Serena Williams to add some personality to the company's staid line of notebooks. Stevenson liked the ads' tone and visuals, but he worried that people wouldn't remember the brand that the celebs were pitching. He was right. Ask your friends which notebook Jay-Z would use to lay down some tracks. I'll bet most of them would say he'd reach for a MacBook.
The U2 deal isn't the first time that the BlackBerry maker has sought celebrity approval. In 2007, RIM sponsored John Mayer's North American tour, and Verizon Wireless' ads for the BlackBerry Storm were voiced by John Krasinski, The Office's Jim Halpert. And, of course, Barack Obama lent RIM perhaps the most valuable celebrity endorsement of all time when he refused to let go of his BlackBerry upon entering the White House. All these pitches seemed in line with BlackBerry's image. Mayer and Krasinski are known for their lack of flash, and the Obama plug fit perfectly with the brand's identity as the world's best productivity device. The U2 sponsorship pushes RIM into a grander arena, a place where it doesn't quite fit—the BlackBerry doesn't exactly scream arena rock. For RIM, the move smacks of desperation, suggesting an ambition to be regarded as generically "cool." This is a surefire way to tell the world that you're actually lame.
And that gets to the deeper problem with the deal: The BlackBerry doesn't need to be cool. It has done well enough for itself—and could continue to do well—by eschewing celeb-driven sheen. Every time I write about Apple or the iPhone, I hear from BlackBerry fans who consider Steve Jobs and his minions to be nothing more than image-conscious showoffs. Whether or not you agree with this view, you can't deny that there's a huge customer base of people who hate unnecessary showiness—that's why we've got car companies like Subaru and Volvo (and even Toyota and VW), computer companies like IBM, and, until recently, mobile-phone companies like Research in Motion.
The mobile-phone business is the most fashion-conscious corner of technology—which is precisely why RIM's longtime dowdiness gave it such a great niche. The BlackBerry appealed to a famously schlubby set: the IT guys who outfit the world's office workers with PDAs. These people don't choose cell phones based on concert sponsorships, TV commercials, or fancy screen-pinching, multitouch user interfaces. If they did, every workaholic lawyer, marketer, lobbyist, journalist, and middle manager in America would have been given a Motorola RAZR five years ago and an iPhone in 2007. The BlackBerry stood apart by appealing to folks who cared more for function than form: It had a great keyboard, a user interface that got you straight to your e-mail, and an OS that never quit. And for that, it was beloved.
I say that the BlackBerry had all this because lately the company has disowned its most loyal fans. Last year, RIM put out the Storm, which it heralded as the world's first touch-screen BlackBerry—a bit like celebrating the world's slowest Ferrari or the first Roomba to require human intervention. The company had traded in the one thing that set the BlackBerry apart, the thing that its customers loved most about the device, for a technology most of its fans regarded as pure sizzle. To make matters worse, RIM's foray into touch screens was a bust. Executives later confessed that the rush to get the Storm out before the holiday shopping season led to a lot of bugs in the device, which accounted for many of its terrible reviews.
It's understandable that RIM wants to expand its market beyond workaholics by emphasizing that its phones can play music, too. But a self-conscious grab for style isn't the way to do it. Instead, I'd urge the company to revel in its buttoned-down image. Here's my idea for a TV ad: Collect every picture of Obama fiddling with his BlackBerry, especially those in which the president looks lost in his work. Assemble the shots into a 30-second slide show and run them against some subtle but futuristic-sounding instrumental track. Then, at the at end of all those shots of the leader of the free world getting stuff done on his BlackBerry, have Jim Halpert say something like "BlackBerry. For when you've got work to do."
OK, maybe they could never do this for fear of arousing Obama's ire, or even a lawsuit. But surely there are ways to subtly hint at Obama's love for the device and to pivot that image into a larger case for the BlackBerry as the one down-to-earth mobile phone—a phone that doesn't need the world's biggest rock band to prove how well it works.
Slate V: Farhad Manjoo on the iPhone vs. the Kindle: