You may have heard this week that Ashton Kutcher has a new job. No, it’s not a movie or TV role, or even an endorsement deal.
Lenovo announced Tuesday that Kutcher, the former star of That 70s Show and Punk’d and current star of Two and a Half Men, has been named a “Lenovo product engineer,” a role in which he “will work with the company’s engineering teams around the world to develop and market the Yoga line of tablets by providing input and decision-making into design, specifications, software and usage scenarios.”
There’s been a lot of this going around in the tech world lately. Lady Gaga, in 2010, was named “Creative Director” for a new Polaroid line of camera products. Alicia Keys also got a “Creative Director” title from BlackBerry not long after, while will.i.am. at one point was named the “Director of Creative Innovation” of Intel. Which is to say nothing for the seemingly endless array of rappers, actors and athletes who have put their names on headphone products from Monster, Beats, and their various offshoots and competitors, often with the backstory that they played a part in the creation of the cans themselves.
Some of these arrangements, so far, haven’t ever amounted to much. Nothing has come of the Gaga/Polaroid deal in at least two years, a “Sunglass Camera” touted as part of the partnership never even reached the market. Keys’ “Creative Director” position with BlackBerry didn’t stop her from tweeting from an iPhone a few months later, although to be fair using an iPhone is a fairly common behavior for most recent BlackBerry users. Will.i.am.’s Intel role at least involved visiting multiple countries and creating music on an Ultrabook computer, although any work he does for Intel is preferable to the terrifying prospect of another Black Eyed Peas album.
Kutcher’s deal, at least according to a series of interviews he gave this week, looks a bit more legitimate. Kutcher, in talking with ABC News’ Joanna Stern, went into some detail about the arrangement:
I was looking for a company that was building mobile devices that I could work with. I was also looking for a company that was willing to take risks and wasn’t making ‘me too’ devices. It’s a dual faceted role, I will be helping do some marketing with the company but also working with the R&D teams.
And after meeting the press, Kutcher hopped a plane to China, to meet with Lenovo’s R&D team.
The actor is a self-described gadget enthusiast, endorsed Nikon for years, and for a time held the record for the most followers of anyone on Twitter. He’s been a successful tech investor, and played Steve Jobs in a recent movie which, even though it was a flop, featured a passable performance from the actor in the lead role.
In other words, of all of the celebrities in the world, Ashton Kutcher is one of the few who might actually have some high-level skills to offer to a consumer electronics company. So why call him an engineer when he isn’t one?
Because despite the “product engineer” title, Ashton Kutcher is not a trained engineer, and holds no degree in computer engineering. While he studied engineering at the University of Iowa, he dropped out to pursue a showbiz career. And Kutcher’s legitimate technological and business savvy notwithstanding, if Lenovo were letting a non-engineer – much less one with a busy acting career – make engineering decisions about the Yoga tablet, it wouldn’t speak very well of Lenovo’s judgment, or of the quality of said product.
I don’t doubt that the press release is telling the truth about how Kutcher will “work with” the engineering teams around the world, including at Lenovo’s headquarters in China. But I’ve got a feeling that “work with” in this case means “visiting the offices once in a while, sitting in on some meetings, and spitballing some advice and ideas.” Because no matter how much time and energy he devotes to his Lenovo duties, sooner or later he’ll be needed again on the set of Two and a Half Men.
Celebrity endorsements are a big part of consumer electronics, and have been for awhile; in January, at International CES, we can expect to see all the big players competing with each other once again over who can deliver the most star power. But it’s a much newer development for companies to imply or state outright that the celebrities are actually playing an active role in the development of their products. There’s certainly nothing wrong with a savvy famous person offering consulting or conceptual advice on what they’re endorsing. But why name someone a creative director or engineer, when they’re neither?