After spending a big chunk of its massive $1 billion budget bludgeoning the American public with the message that it has the "fewest dropped calls," the nation's No. 1 carrier is changing tack. AT&T will still run its humorous ads showing hapless callers trying to wiggle out of embarrassing situations after their phone call cuts off in midconversation, but it will quit making the claim.
The billion-dollar question is: Why, after lavishing so much time and money on the message, would AT&T move away from it? Could it have anything to do with unconfirmed reports that competitor Verizon Wireless pressured it to change following independent studies that showed the claim wasn't exactly accurate? Or a Consumer Reports exposé that says the claim is inflated? Or talk that the survey it's based on is far from foolfproof to begin with?
Absolutely not, according to a spokesman, who suggested the change in claim -- the new tagline will be "more bars in more places" -- was designed to "re-emphasize the coverage issue as opposed to dropped calls." He said the move was similar to those made by marketers "all the time." New ads are due soon from its agency, Omnicom Group's BBDO, New York.
One thing is clear, however: One-upmanship claims by carriers who spend a collective $5 billion annually on marketing to brag about the best service or networks are disconnecting with consumers well aware wireless service has lots of room for improvement. "They've all got some nerve," said Greg Daugherty, executive editor, Consumer Reports. "It's a bit of a stretch."
Rob Enderle, president and principal analyst, Enderle Group, called the AT&T's fewest-dropped-calls claim "hard to believe." The carrier, he said, "has the reputation of overloading the network so consumers get a bad experience." So will the "more-bars" claim resonate better with the public? It may, said Mr. Enderle. Consumers "equate bars with satisfaction and quality. It might work if people believe it."
Consumer Reports doesn't. In its 2006 telecommunications survey, which was conducted last September and tallied the surveys of 42,000 readers, AT&T, formerly Cingular, had average or worse scores for dropped calls in the 20 cities it surveyed. As for "more bars" or, as the Consumer Reports survey put it, "no service," Cingular also was rated as average or worse in each city with the exception of Dallas, where it was rated better than average. One headline on Cingular's claim in the issue containing the report was: "Fewest dropped calls? Sez who?"
In initiating the fewest-dropped-calls claim last year, AT&T decided to challenge Verizon Wireless' long-held positioning as illustrated by its iconic test man who makes rounds asking, "Can you hear me now?" AT&T said it based its claims on an independent study from telecommunications-research firm Telephia. Based in San Francisco, Telephia sends out engineers in vans who drive through communities nationwide making calls on different phones from different carriers and logging the results, a Telephia spokeswoman said. The study also helps carriers determine where they need to improve service.
That same study is the backbone of the marketing campaign not just for AT&T but for most of the other carriers, with each slicing and dicing the results to suit their advertising. Verizon said it uses the study along with its internal studies to make its most-reliable-network claims.
T-Mobile, in fact, also advertised in markets such as Miami that "no one had fewer dropped calls" in those cities, based upon research from Telephia. In an interview with Advertising Age earlier this summer, Sid Gorham, Telephia president-CEO of Telephia, saw no problem with everyone using the same data. "They publicize different elements," he said. "Quality is not a monolithic thing."
Telephia would not discuss findings of its research; a spokeswoman said it considers results proprietary.
For his part, Consumer Reports' Mr. Daugherty said his survey's results would indicate Verizon has the best service. Surprisingly, Alltel, which does not advertise the claim, came out strong in the areas where it competes with the major carriers.