Silicon Valley’s Seal of Approval

Technology VIPs have quietly become pitchmen for cars, clothing, and alcohol brands

They might not be Us Weekly fodder yet, but a growing number of tech personalities seem to have the kind of star power that makes advertisers gush.

In the past year, entrepreneurs and engineers from Silicon Valley and New York City have popped up in ads on TV, the Web, and in print. But they’re not directly pushing their own products; they’re helping car, clothing, and alcohol companies buff their already well-known brands (and in most cases, handing over any fee earned to favorite charities).

“Web 2.0 CEOs are the new Julia Roberts of the world,” says Scott Galloway, a professor of marketing at NYU’s Stern School of Business, adding “[Advertisers] want to bring that magic pixie dust called innovation across their brands.”

The tech world’s (mostly male) VIPs may not love the Pretty Woman comparison. But as industry hotshots appear in ads for Mercedes-Benz, the Gap, and Stolichnaya vodka, it’s clear that Madison Avenue thinks that Silicon Valley is no slouch when it comes to seduction.

Steve Cannon, vice president of marketing for Mercedes-Benz, says it was “pure good fortune” when Google executive Vic Gundotra sent the company an email earlier this year, praising it for collision-avoidance technology that helped save his life. Instead of letting the note languish in an in-box, Cannon says he had Gundotra on the phone in less than 24 hours. Soon after, they dispatched a crew to tape Gundotra at Google’s Mountain View, Calif., headquarters and had a 30-second spot running in July.

Cannon says the ad, which is Mercedes’ cheapest of 2011, is not only the company’s most effective ad of the the year, according to Ace Metrix, but it’s also the second most effective ad in the entire luxury auto category for 2011. “To have an unpaid endorsement from a guy at the top of the tech and innovation space, it just worked out so beautifully,” he says.

Even tech execs from companies with lower profiles than Google hold sway with brands. Last fall, Foursquare founders Dennis Crowley and Naveen Selvadurai took part in a Gap ad campaign. This summer, Tumblr founder and CEO David Karp joined other New Yorkers in a campaign for Japanese clothing retailer Uniqlo. “We specifically gravitated toward [him] because he’s a native New Yorker and he’s innovative, something we strive to associate with our brand,” says Mary Lawton, a rep for Uniqlo.

Lisa Pfenning, the William Grant & Sons category director for Stolichnaya vodka, which tapped Twitter co-founder Biz Stone for an ad campaign last year, says that, especially for brands trying to reach a younger audience, embracing digital culture is critical. “We’d be remiss to ignore this trend that is really resonating with our consumer base,” she says.

But who knows how long Madison Avenue’s crush on Web 2.0 superstars will last. If we really are in a bubble and it pops, these high-tech luminaries will likely lose their luster.

“A couple of years ago, the hedge fund guys were the new celebrities,” says Galloway. “Athletes and movie stars will always have that heat, but industries that are en vogue create their own cults of personalities. We don’t know how long social media is going to be the it thing.”