Today, at the 2013 Samsung TV launch event in lower Manhattan, company executives showed off a slew of shiny products, including an 85-inch television, a redesigned touch-sensitive remote control, and voice- and gesture-based navigation. But for the media attending the event, which oddly took place at the Museum of American Finance, the products were soon playing second fiddle to super model Kate Upton, who made a surprise guest appearance on stage.
"Look at all the cameras now—they want to get a shot of you," said Joe Stinziano, executive VP for Samsung Electronics America, as he welcomed Upton on stage.
"I don't know why," Upton said facetiously as the two smiled.
"It wasn't like this before!" Stinziano said.
Celebrity endorsements are nothing new—nor were the products and features Samsung highlighted today since many were already unveiled at CES in January. But today's event not only demonstrated the increasingly tight-knit relationship between celebrities and the tech world—Eli Manning and Flo Rida made appearances, too—but also served to show at least one potential downside of getting such high-profile stars involved: When the celebrities attending your product launch overshadow your products, chances are you need to be spending less time on PR, and more time making better products. Because despite how many times corporate Samsung suits said, without irony, that they were "bringing the wow," the only wow-worthy aspects of the event were Upton's looks, Flo Rida's biceps, and Manning's awkward dialogue.
The Samsung stage at the event was a revolving set of living rooms. As the stage rotated, Stinziano would cross from one space to the next, each mocked up to look like Upton's, Flo Rida's, and Manning's living rooms, where he and the celebrities would spit boilerplate about various features: the second-screen experience, apps, and so forth. The problem? As soon as the presentation finished, the press flocked to the celebrities offstage, leaving Samsung's products alone and demo areas empty.
The fact is the products Samsung showed off today, and the television products the company has showed off in the past, represent incremental advances: The screens are larger, the colors brighter, the interface improved. No matter how many celebrities Samsung pays to hawk its features, the company cannot disguise incremental improvement as innovation. Nobody is fooled by Samsung's "Deep Black Algorithm and Real Black Pro II," which delivers "eights times the black levels as standard LED TVs," its "Micro Dimming Pro" contrast, and its "ultra high definition TVs," which provide "four times more pixels than 1080p HD displays." Yes, incremental improvements are important to a company's success and bottom line, but only if the incremental changes are improving upon an already innovative idea in ways that are more innovative than from competitors. In other words, Samsung might have improved its televisions' user interface, but it's still not as appealing as Xbox's; Samsung may have ramped up its app store, but it's not as intriguing as where Roku's is headed; and Samsung might've spruced up its navigation tools, but it doesn't outshine what Peel or Google TV or any number of other services are doing to make the viewing experience streamlined and less cluttered.
Taken as a whole, the features are, well, boring and not very compelling. There's no whiz-bang here. And the devices are far from the living room revolution consumers and critics have been expecting for years. If Apple does indeed unveil a television in the coming future, as many expect or at least hope for, no celebrity will detract from the public's attention toward its products, not least because Tim Cook is likely more of a celebrity to the tech press than Eli Manning. (Samsung's corporate execs look more like they should be working at the American Museum of Finance, rather than presenting there.)
Sean Parker's startup Airtime is guilty of the same mistake as Samsung: thinking celebrity endorsements can make up for weak products. When Parker launched his new company in June, a parade of celebrities were trotted out for the event: Jimmy Fallon, Snoop Dogg, Ed Helms, even Martha Stewart. But in spite of praise from Jim Carrey and Olivia Munn, the video-chatting service has garnered little attention since then.
The issue is that it's hard to imagine Martha Stewart actually using Airtime, just as it's hard to imagine Dr. Dre using an HP laptop or Gwen Stefani using a Windows Phone. In fact, when BlackBerry named Alicia Keys its creative director, many soon realized she was an avid iPhone user and had a big presence on Instagram, an app not available on BlackBerry. Similarly, Kate Upton has been spotted at a Samsung event with her iPhone, while Flo Rida, despite using a Samsung tablet on stage today, has been seen using an iPad. These offenses are akin to a Coca-Cola-contracted celebrity seen drinking Pepsi in public.
Arguably, if any company has suffered the consequences of celebrity dealings, it's Nike. The company has run into its fair share of woes, from Tiger Woods to Lance Armstrong to Oscar Pistorius. But now the company seems to be taking an approach to marketing that is less reliant on celebrities. As Nike VP Stefan Olander told me once, "In the past, companies could put stuff out there and then great marketing would sell it, but that doesn't work anymore. The world is transparent now. Everyone can pick up their phone right now and find out if something is good or bad. So [the industry] is no longer able to hide behind a massive marketing campaign to fool people into thinking, quite frankly, that something was good."
In a world where consumers value authenticity—or at least a believable air of authenticity—there is nothing worse than a company coming off as blatantly phony and disingenuous. Take the dialogue between the celebrities and Samsung executives. Sure, all of these events are heavily rehearsed and scripted. But today's event made it seem like those on stage were giving line readings at an amateur theater's casting call. (It didn't help that the event space was small, and the teleprompters were as visibly close to the audience as the celebrities themselves.) Here are a few choice lines:
"I have a little confession," Upton teased. "I'm a complete sports fanatic...I love football, and Samsung Smart TV has made me even more of a sports fanatic!"
"Samsung Smart TV makes it easy to find [shows]...But can I ask you a question? Everything I've seen so far about the 2013 Samsung Smart TVs looks great. But what about the TV I bought last year?" Manning asked, cueing up a Samsung executive to show how older generation devices can be upgraded. "That's pretty cool," Manning concluded.
"Check out it. I felt like the sound system here needed a little extra boom...[this is] called the Samsung Giga sound system—we're going to tear the roof off of this place!" Flo Rida said. "I'm all about freedom. I like to have my music, movies, TV, Internet—everything at my fingertips, so I can get to it, no problem. I can't wait to find all my devices just to listen to one song. What I really love is how with one swipe I can take whatever I'm watching and listening to on my Samsung Galaxy 10.1 and send it to the TV!"
As Flo Rida's hit single "Good Feeling" blasted over the speakers, the teleprompters slowed to a halt.
"Speakers turn up and Flo Rida's music is played over the sound system as our audience gets up to explore the new 2013 lineup," the last panel read.
Unfortunately, that wasn't the case for most of the audience.