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Tech Goes Hollywood

By Seth Jayson (TMF Bent)
January 10, 2005

If you don't believe that truth is stranger than fiction, just set your gaze to the myriad dog-and-pony shows that consumer electronics companies are putting together for their annual Las Vegas bash, an event that was, not long ago, a stale showroom of incremental upgrades in TVs and stereos.

Among the oddities: Robert Redford and Stephen Tyler shilled for Intel (Nasdaq: INTC) before Tyler stopped off for an "impromptu gig" (uh huh, sure) at the Olympus booth. Howie Long, whose tenure in Radio Shack (NYSE: RSH) ads apparently makes him an expert on future digital-light-processing HDTVs, helped Texas Instruments (NYSE: TXN) CEO Rich Templeton hype his company's technology.

But last week's game ball has to go to Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ) CEO Carly Fiorina, whose presentation announced that a rock star would be joining the HP design team. And to win over any lurking Che constituency, she claimed that the digital revolution was "about giving power to the people" -- an interesting bit of nonsense from a woman who has publicly shown the greatest contempt for the little people who actually own HP, by fighting their clear call to expense stock options.

But I digress. Although Fiorina's backing track came from nonthreatening piano pop songstress Vanessa Carlton, it's amped-up glam chanteuse Gwen Stefani who will be putting her mark on a line of the company's digital cameras.

Yes, digital cameras. Let the record show that celebrities' design skills are no longer relegated to the clothing and perfume aisles. (Nor to the beverage case. Cool glass of Pimp Juice, anyone?) Investors will want to temper their giggles and eyeball-rolling, at least after the initial shock, because Hollywood synergy is the wave of the future for tech. And it's something worth considering.

Think about it. From a performance standpoint, will the average consumer really find any difference between a snapshot camera from HP, Canon (NYSE: CAJ), and Eastman-Kodak (NYSE: EK)? Not likely. So, fearing that perception of sameness among their offerings, the gadget makers are relying more and more on sizzle to capture market share. Even device darling du jour Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL) turned to U2 to get an extra kick for its market-whomping iPod.

In other words, it's a brave new celebrity-happy world out there. Tech investors will need to keep their eyes on the red carpet as well as their return on capital.

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Seth Jayson prays nightly for a Britney Spears-branded, dual Athlon 64, Serial ATA RAID motherboard, though he'd settle for a Lindsay Lohan toaster oven. At the time of publication, he had positions in no company mentioned. View his stock holdings and Fool profile here. Fool rules are here.