Have you seen these commercials for AT&T that are on TV now? The one that’s essentially a call center room where all the operators are wandering freely, talking to customers who are all asking the exact same questions, so that the camera can cut between the different employees without breaking the flow of conversation. There is something extremely noteworthy to me about how this commercial is put together, and it isn’t their pretty brick and glass call center room. (Years ago AT&T call centers were almost ubiquitously large, overlit, cubicled rooms where hundreds of people with their heads down read into the phones from scripts. The rooms would be filled with so much cigarette smoke that you couldn’t see from one end to the next, and the poorly compensated workers did not bother to dress nicely for work. It wasn’t required anyway. Today the call centers are a bit nicer, but that’s mostly due to them being in India and where there is a different attitude towards the profession.)
What catches me the most about this commercial in particular is the overwhelming negativity of it. The subject is AT&T phone service vs. cable phone service. There was a day when, confronted by a potentially major new competitor, AT&T would have trotted out some legitimate figures and showed the world percentages of satisfied customers, or the differences in drop out rates, or line quality, or… something. This commercial is substantively empty. Instead what it does is attempt to provoke the fear that their phone will somehow go away in the middle of a fire or robbery because it’s made of scary new technology instead of “ol’ reliable.”
(In the interest of transparency, Lena and I have been using Vonage, a cable phone company, for over a year now. Thus far, it has been of a consistently higher quality, more reliable, and at a price AT&T still cannot touch.)
When I look at this style of advertisement, it makes me think less of products and services, and more of politics. If you can’t compete legitimately, you just throw a bunch of crap at the other guy and hope someone believes you.
Now this isn’t the first time a company has gone down this path. Does anyone remember the Burger Wars which ultimately dragged down both Burger King and McDonald’s to the point where upstart new Wendy’s was able to capitalize and open new restaurants across the nation? Extra points if you remember the star of the commercial that started the “war.” Here’s a hint:
My concern is that, with the obvious success of placing fear over message of recent political campaigns, Madison Avenue has somehow decided that this is a good idea to emulate. But one reason that it does work for politicians is that the campaigns are relatively short. Jump in, scare everyone, and jump back out before they have a chance to think too closely about what you’ve done and begin resenting you for it. An advertising campaign frequently lasts years, and, as with the Burger Wars, can damage the advertiser if done poorly.
Given this, maybe my concerns are not justified. Maybe, by trying to tar their rivals, AT&T will actually be giving them just what they want, allowing them the foothold they’ll need to become a serious, long-term competitor.
That would certainly satisfy my sense of irony.