Will Microsoft’s billion-dollar bet on celebrity ads for Windows Phone 8 pay off?

Jessica Alba Windows Phone 8On October 25, something weird happened. Jessica Alba was the subject of a paparazzi photograph, where she was spotted clutching a brightly colored, unreleased Nokia Lumia 920 smartphone. Now, we’re all used to seeing pre-release phones in blurry pictures, but rarely do we see them in the hands of movie stars.

The reason Ms. Alba was using the Lumia 920 became clear a week later, when she joined Steve Ballmer and Joe Belfiore on stage at Microsoft’s Windows Phone 8 launch, and chatted about using the new Kids Corner feature. It was a big moment for Microsoft, as she was introduced almost as a brand ambassador – and she spoke enthusiastically about a smartphone she had been pictured using.

Since then, Microsoft has bombarded us with adverts for Windows Phone 8 featuring a host of international stars, showing it’s making the most of the $1.8 billion pot it set aside to promote its new Windows software this holiday season. Microsoft is putting everything it has got into making Windows Phone a success, and it needs you to be equally as passionate about it. Having chosen to go down the celebrity road, its choice of stars is crucial.

But it’s not the first time the fabulous and famous have been roped into pimping a new gadget and most efforts have been less than inspiring. Can Microsoft break the trend?

Night of 1000 stars

We asked Microsoft to explain its thinking behind the gallery of stars it had employed to promote Windows Phone 8. Here’s the explanation from a Microsoft rep:

“We looked for people that had very natural and relatable stories about how their phone keeps them connected to the people and stuff they care more about. Each of them have unique personalities and are known for a variety of personal passions … We knew it’d be a lot of fun to bring their worlds to life through their own personal Start Screens.”

Will Arnett Windows Phone 8Microsoft’s list of celebrities includes the aforementioned Jessica Alba, plus Gwen Stefani, Andy Samberg, Cam Newton, Jay-Z, James Cordon, Will Arnett, and Holly Willoughby.

It has even put out an anti-celebrity ad – the one starring Will Arnett – to appeal to those who find the celebrity lifestyle gag-inducing. It’s damn funny, too. We doubt this is an exhaustive list either; it’s just the ads we’ve seen so far.

For Microsoft, it’s all about building the Windows Phone brand, which in the past, it has more or less left to its hardware partners.

Things are getting out of hand

Well known faces have been used to advertise everything from watches to alcohol for decades, but the tech world has managed to remain fairly celebrity free until recently, primarily because it was a bit too niche for large scale, expensive advertising campaigns.

There are some notable exceptions, such as the time Microsoft got Jennifer Aniston and Matthew Perry together for a Windows 95 video guide, and the unusual pairing of Bill Gates and Jerry Seinfeld for another Microsoft promo. Naturally, Apple has enjoyed dropping a few names over the years too, including its Get a Mac ads with Justin Long and John Hodgman, then using everyone from Mary J. Blige to Coldplay to advertise the iPod and iTunes.

More recently, the trend switched to big name manufacturers holding parties to celebrate the release of a new device, then inviting a few celebs along to get the event – and the product – into the tabloid press. Witness Paris Hilton at the launch of the Nokia 5800, where Lady Gaga was the DJ, Anna Kendrick and Christina Ricci at the BlackBerry Torch party, and Facebook pages for the Motorola Droid Razr and HTC Status social events for the depths to which some sank.

Then the seriously nauseating televised stuff started. Megan Fox talked about Motoblur (well, at least someone did), Mariah Carey used AT&T’s 3G network and perhaps most cringe-making of all, Eva Longoria and Victoria Beckham using fashionable LG phones together. Apple recently released a series of mildly (or hugely, in the case of Zooey Deschanel) embarrassing TV spots promoting Siri to round it all off.

Fast forward to this past week, and Jessica Alba is busily promoting Windows Phone on Twitter – “I’m digging my red Windows Phone, what do you think? – and HTC has got Rihanna Instagramming pictures of herself nibbling on a limited edition One X. Really? That’s sad.

That brings us almost up to date, and as you can now see, using celebrities to advertise tech isn’t anything new. But doing it well certainly would be.

Will trying to attract a different type of buyer work this time?

But isn’t advertising with celebrities a bit old fashioned? The writer of an Ad Age article entitled “Celebrities in advertising are almost always a big waste of money” certainly thinks so. He shows graphs indicating campaigns featuring a well known star underperformed compared with those that didn’t. Written nearly two years ago, it correctly predicted the rise in social networks in advertising over a “weak celebrity connection.”

Then there are the celebrity meltdowns and scandals, which can’t help but impact the brands with which they’re associated. Tiger Woods, Brett Favre, Kobe Bryant, Charlie Sheen (who unusually, did bounce back) and most recently Lance Armstrong have all caused many emergency marketing meetings.

There’s no shortage of fame seekers willing to take on a bit of advertising work, but the challenge is for the company to chose a celebrity who not only embodies the brand image, but is also relatable to its customer base.

Microsoft has been promoting Windows Phone to people who aren’t particularly into tech since it first came out, but judging by its tiny market share, it hasn’t managed to strike the right chord just yet.

This celebrity line-up though, each seen to be perfectly integrating Windows Phone into their everyday lives – and not talking about processors, memory or battery capacity at all – is doing a much better job. Microsoft is appealing to people who don’t want to buy a ‘complicated’ Android phone, or who feel the iPhone is too showy. For that to work, we have to relate to those advertising it.

Has it worked on you?

Ultimately, Microsoft wants you to buy a Windows Phone. That’s why blanketing the airwaves with passionate celebrities whose lives are being enriched by a product they’re new phone. Of almost all the celeb advertising examples I listed above, very few featured passionate people, but Microsoft’s do. It’s irrelevant whether it’s put on for the camera; it appears to be genuine, and passion is exactly what the company wants from you.

And so we come full circle, as those seeds were sown when Jessica Alba talked on stage during the Windows Phone 8 launch event. Take another look at the video if you don’t remember. Though we all sneered when she first walked on, expecting nothing more than a hello and goodbye; we instead saw someone who appeared to genuinely enjoy using Windows Phone.

The question is, has all this effort paid off, or will it? While you may not have decided to buy a Windows Phone handset on the strength of Jessica’s, Will’s, or Holly’s say so, has it made you want to look at one more closely, or recommended that a friend do so? Or perhaps it made you click on an article discussing it, or even just talk about Windows Phone on Twitter, or share one of the ads on Facebook?

If the answer to any of these is yes, or you catch yourself doing something like it over the coming months, then Microsoft’s billions have been well spent.

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