Hype Sheet: Olympus Sees Your Undies

The Pitch An intrepid mountaineer summits a snowy peak, raising his arms in the universal symbol of triumph. The celebratory moment is ruined, however, when his flip phone rings—T-Mobile has apparently been installing cell towers in the Himalayas. The message our intrepid hero receives is an important one: His fly is open, an embarrassing oversight that's quickly corrected. How did the caller know the mountaineer was in danger of hanging brain? Because he's stationed down below with an Olympus SP-560 Ultra Zoom camera, which features an 18x optical zoom. Okay, so we get the basic gist—hooray for a maximum focal length of 486mm! But what might this spot tell us about the future of Olympus, the world's fourth-biggest camera maker?

The Spin Most of Olympus's competition has focused on increasing megapixels with each passing year, on the assumption that consumers are (wrongly) obsessed with that particular spec. Olympus is breaking with this trend by stressing its optical zoom, and thus targeting a more informed type of consumer—or at least one who's been following the recent wave of megapixel debunkings. With an MSRP of just $450, the SP-560 is meant to nibble away at the Canon PowerShot line's popularity among a certain kind of shutterbug—moderately skilled amateurs who do a fair amount of globetrotting. It's a smart strategy: The margins are pretty low on sub-$300 digicams, which are geared toward families who merely want to snap Junior's birthday parties. Going after the wealthier world travelers who aren't quite ready for SLRs is a more promising avenue.

Counterspin You've got to wonder if Olympus sees its consumer camera business eventually becoming a sideline. This refocusing on the high-end amateur market coincides with the Japanese company's $1.87 billion acquisition of Gyrus, a British manufacturer of medical cameras. Olympus is already the world's biggest supplier of endoscopes; the Gyrus deal only adds fuel to speculation that Olympus wants to make medical technology its chief moneymaker. That might mean radically de-emphasizing its digicam business, and the low-end products are the likeliest candidates for the chopping blocks. This mountaineer spot, then, can be viewed as part of the company's efforts to slowly consolidate its consumer camera division, a process that may involve shedding its more affordable point-and-shoots. Perhaps Olympus is betting that camera phones will replace the likes of these sooner rather than later—a risky gamble, given a recent IDC report that found that 30 percent of camphone users are in the market for a digicam.


Mission Accomplished? Olympus is one of those brands that doesn't seem to evoke strong passions among gearheads—it operates rather quietly, rarely making splashy ads or, for that matter, awe-inspiring technological breakthroughs. (Okay, so the E-3 DSLR is pretty cool.) Will this commercial make anyone think Olympus is some sort of trailblazer? Probably not—the one-note premise quickly wears thin, and the production values are a notch or two lower than the typical Sony fare. But given Olympus's cautious track record, you have to think the company's braintrust gave careful thought to their new direction—piles of proprietary research probably tell them that cheap point-and-shoots aren't the future, so they best start polishing their brand's reputation for quality instead of value.

Hype-O-Meter 6.5 (out of 10). The 18x optical zoom is a winner, no doubt, and Olympus is an undeniably shrewd player. But I'm docking points (perhaps unfairly) because of the cellphone gaffe; couldn't they have outfitted the mountaineer with a satellite handset instead of what looks to be a Razr? Or is there some wondrous satellite flip phone out there about which I'm not yet aware?

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired, a columnist for Slate, and author of the forthcoming Now the Hell Will Start. His Hype Sheet column appears every Thursday on Gizmodo.


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"Hanging Brain?"