Oprah Meets Her Kryptonite: Cisco’s Umi


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Oprah Winfrey is the Midas of marketing, her endorsements the key to everything from countless books making the bestseller list to electing a president. But even she may not have the magic to move units of the new videophone product Umi.

Viewers of her daytime talk show may have been surprised Wednesday when Winfrey used Cisco’s “telepresence” device to conduct an out-of-studio interview instead of her customary choice, Skype. It won’t be the last time Umi will be on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” either, as part of a deal with Cisco.

But before she inevitably gives every member of her studio audience an Umi, she might want to note the product has gotten a pretty icy reception that may make turn it into this year’s tech Edsel.

For starters, there’s the price tag: $599, which doesn’t include a $25 monthly subscription fee. Is Winfrey really going to pitch a product that outrageously expense to a country in no economic shape for that kind of luxury good? Then there’s the fact that Umi comes in four separate pieces, which isn’t going to be embraced in American living rooms already overrun with unused remote controls and TV sets encumbered by one too many boxes.

It’s a shame because Winfrey has been a real friend to the technology world going back to 2003, when a little device called the Blackberry got an on-air plug credited with helping RIM (NSDQ: RIMM) hit critical mass. When it comes to taking gizmos from early-adopter phase to soccer-mom embrace, her imprimatur is what Advertising Age once called the “pinnacle of product publicity.” She’s devoted entire episodes to showcasing YouTube, Twitter and Skype.

Of course, her relationship with Skype has extended far beyond one episode; there may be no brand on earth that has gotten such consistent product placement on Winfrey’s show in recent years. And that presents an interesting wrinkle to this Umi endorsement: Does it make it all the more powerful a plug that Winfrey is throwing aside her steady technology favorite to have a fling with a new love, or will the price comparison with the profoundly cheaper Skype make it seem all the more ridiculous?

Maybe Skype should have seen this coming. The software has been criticized for being buggy even on Oprah’s show, and Oprah.com has been littered with negative comments criticizing the service’s quality. So this could cut both ways, Cisco: Be careful what you wish for.

UPDATE: A spokeswoman for Skype clarified that her company’s partnership with “Oprah” actually concluded at the end of the previous season of her show, though Winfrey is free to continue using the service on air if she chooses. “We are extremely proud of what we accomplished together and wish Oprah and “The Oprah Winfrey Show” the very best in their farewell season.”

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