This week, Michael Phelps signed a deal worth more than $1 million to advertise Mazda in China. Jerry Seinfeld earned a reported $10 million to appear in Microsoft's recent television campaign. But the person who may be the biggest celebrity pitchman in the world is not earning a penny for his work.
President-elect Barack Obama has repeatedly said how much his BlackBerry means to him and how he is dreading the prospect of being forced to give it up, because of legal and security concerns, once he takes office.
"I'm still clinging to my BlackBerry," Obama said Wednesday in an interview with CNBC and The New York Times. "They're going to pry it out of my hands." What could the "BlackBerry president" charge for his plugs of the device if he were not a public servant? More than $25 million, marketing experts say, and maybe as much as $50 million.
"This would be almost the biggest endorsement deal in the history of endorsements," said Doug Shabelman, the president of Burns Entertainment, which arranges deals between celebrities and companies. "He's consistently seen using it and consistently in the news arguing — and arguing with issues of national security and global welfare — how he absolutely needs this to function on a daily basis."
Obama is an ideal marketing representative, other agents say — popular, constantly in the news and explicit about his attachment to the product.
"You always want the celebrity to be a good fit with your brand, and is anybody considered a better communicator right now than Barack Obama, or a better networker?" said Fran Kelly, the chief executive of the advertising agency Arnold Worldwide, who estimated that an endorsement by Obama would be worth $25 million. "It couldn't have a better spokesperson."
Shabelman put the value even higher, at $50 million or more, because the endorsement is worldwide. "The worth to a company to have the president always talking about a BlackBerry and how it absolutely is a necessity to keep in touch with reality?" he said. "Think about how far the company has come if they're able to say, 'The president has to have this to keep in touch.' "
The maker of the BlackBerry, Research in Motion, recently introduced advertising campaigns and products like the touch-screen Storm that are meant to position BlackBerry as not just a business device but a consumer product like the iPhone. The company, which declined to comment on Obama's enthusiasm for its product, also struck a sponsorship deal with John Mayer, a popular guitarist but hardly the leader of the free world.
"The most powerful man in the country is saying, at this moment, basically, I can't live without mine," Lori Sale, the head of artist marketing at the agency Paradigm, which pairs actors like Adrien Brody and Katherine Heigl with advertisers. "It represents their now complete and final crossover to a device that people adore."
Sale said that Obama had essentially participated in what is called a satellite media tour for BlackBerry by discussing the product with reporters. Just a single day of a media tour, "with the most A-list of A-list of A-list, would probably be 10 to 15 million dollars," she said.
That he is not paid to promote BlackBerry is even better for RIM. "What makes it even more valuable than that is how authentic it is," she said. Kelly said the endorsement went both ways: while Obama was doing a lot for BlackBerry, BlackBerry had helped Obama's image by making his message seem more relevant.
"The BlackBerry anecdotes are a huge part of Obama's brand reputation," he said. "It positions him as one of us: he's got friends and family and people to communicate with us, just like all of us. And it positions him as a next-generation politician." Inevitably, perhaps, marketing executives dream about creating an ad featuring the president-elect, something Gene Liebel, a partner in the Brooklyn agency Huge, said would be a "fantasy assignment."
Asked what tagline he might use for the campaign, Liebel repeated one his employees had thought up: "If Blagojevich can pick my replacement, I can pick my device." R. Vann Graves, the chief creative officer of the UniWorld Group, suggested a campaign showing Obama in the Oval Office. "In the foreground, you have the desk, but instead of having the proverbial red phone, you have a red BlackBerry," Graves said, with the tagline "Shot Caller."
Matt Reinhard, the executive creative director of DDB Los Angeles, suggested Apple try to steal Obama away from BlackBerry as a spokesman for the iPhone.
The message could be, "It's time for change," Reinhard said.