Is Obama’s Blackberry endorsement worth $50 million?

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Now that we have world peace and the economy is under control, we can turn our attention to the important stuff, like President Obama’s Blackberry. Over the weekend, we learned he’s getting to keep his Blackberry, except, maybe it won’t be a Blackberry, but a super-secure Sectéra Edge from General Dynamics. Of course, Microsoft was quick to say, hey wait, he should use a U.S. product (i.e., one running Windows CE) rather than a Blackberry, a product from Canada, a country where lots of people speak French. No word yet from Apple, despite the iPhone playing a supporting role in his campaign communications success.

Unfortunately, the White House email server crashed this afternoon and no one there is getting email anyway. And you thought that just happened where you work.

President Obama’s love of his Blackberry is the type of unsolicited endorsement that comes along once in a marketer’s dream life. I’m sure there is some group crunching away at the equivalency value of the millions of mentions of the Blackberry brand in the media’s obsessed coverage of this puffery. The New York Times ran a story a couple of weeks ago suggesting Obama’s “endorsement” is worth $50 million to the brand.

And even with the device reportedly being the Sectéra Edge, every article is still using the word “Blackberry” to define the category of wireless device it is.

But is the Obamadorsement really helping Blackberry? According to the Wall Street Journal this morning, the company that markets Blackberry, Research in Motion, has sold only 500,000 unites of its new model, the Storm, about 20% of the units of the Apple iPhone that sold during the the same period after its introduction.

Even Obama can’t revive some things.

The notion that a President would actually “endorse” a product may seem far-fetched, but you could argue that Presidents spend a big chunk of their time doing ceremonial activities that are, in effect, a way in which they can lend their stature and media-big-stick to raise the attention of industries and causes. And it’s extremely well documented that if a President mentions he likes a book, the sales sky-rocket in a way that rivals only an Oprah nod. A recent example is the Obama-touted Team of Rivals and perhaps the best known example is Ronald Reagan turning Tom Clancy into a rock-star author by calling his Hunt For Red Octoberunputdownable.”

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President Kennedy tried to pump up sales of a Navy buddy’s
hat company, but hat sales still sunk.

My favorite — and perhaps most obscure — story about an overt attempt by a President to help boost the sales of a product is one I read about years ago in the magazine American Heritage. Thanks to Google, I found the remembered article — actually an editor’s letter — on the American Heritage website* and the photo it describes (but is not on the American Heritage site) on the website of the JFK Library.

It has long been an urban legend that President Kennedy is the reason men stopped wearing hats in the early 1960s. (Snopes.com has a great de-bunking of the myth with photos of Kennedy wearing a top-hat at inaugural-day functions.) But the fact remains that Kennedy, who rarely wore a hat, was perceived even at the time as exacerbating the already-established trend away from hat-wearing by men.

However, President Kennedy one time purposefully had himself photographed with a hat as an active form of product endorsement — what today we’d call a “product placement.” He did it as a favor for a Navy buddy who had served with him on the famous PT 109.

Here’s how the story goes in American Heritage:

“After his PT service, (Al Webb) became vice president of sales for Cavanagh Hats. With his fellow skipper’s famous bareheadedness ravaging his enterprise, Webb had Cavanagh run up two fine custom hats and hurried to the White House to give one to the President and one to Kennedy’s long-time friend, a businessman named Red Fay.

“Al removed the hats from their boxes as though they were fragile Stradivarii,” recalled the writer William Manchester, who was on hand for the presentation. “Jack and the Redhead tried them on. . . . Al stood back to observe the effect. He said unconvincingly, ‘You both look great.’ Jack and Red looked at each other and burst out laughing. ‘Al,’ said the President, ‘are you willing to destroy the beloved image of our country’s leader just to save the hat industry?'” Manchester thought the hats made the two men “look like a couple of house detectives.” Webb retreated, “crestfallen.”

…”Kennedy met the challenge in his own way. The next day he greeted former President Eisenhower at Camp David and thereafter sent Al a picture of the great occasion: It showed Kennedy leaning forward, his right hand extended; in his left hand he held a hat, the lining facing out toward the camera. The Cavanagh Hats label was plainly visible!”

As stylish as Kennedy was, however, the hat never made a comeback in men’s business fashion.

And despite the well-publicized ‘addiction’ of President Obama to his Blackberry, it will be interesting to monitor what sort of sales bump his endorsement will have.

[Photo via: JFK Library.]

*While the website still has some prominent links to Forbes.com, the magazine in now owned independently.

  • One of Obama’s semi-sort-of-kinda product endorsements is making me very sad. Since the New York Times revealed (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/31/dining/31cara.html) that the 44th president has a fondness for salted caramels, particularly the Fran’s Salted Caramels to which I have an unhealthy attraction, they’ve been getting harder and harder to find in local stores. Hey all you caramel Johnny come latelys, how about buying a Blackberry instead…