AT&T Has Loud, Clear Message for Rivals

New Campaign Says It Provides Best Cellphone Coverage -- So Take That, 'Testman'

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SAN FRANCISCO (AdAge.com) -- AT&T is taking on Verizon Wireless and its "best coverage" quality claims, a move some observers of the telecom industry say is overdue.

"I'm surprised it's taken them so long," Jeff Kagan, an independent telecom analyst, said of the AT&T campaign. "Verizon doesn't have anything on them."

Lost without AT&T
A series of spots that broke during the recent NCAA basketball championship games show people who, because they've missed calls, are missing out on free concert tickets or walking into embarrassing situations. In one of the spots, a college student in a bar plays a miniature hoops game, wildly shooting baskets. His alter ego appears on screen, representing the student's cellphone. The alter ego, talking to the camera, says the man will not be answering the 30 calls his friend is making trying to tell him about free tickets for the NCAA's Final Four tournament because he has no coverage in the bar. One iteration shows a father searching for his daughter on a remote lookout point because he didn't get her text message up there, and another shows a pool player who doesn't get the news about a Motorhead concert.

Omnicom Group's BBDO, New York, is AT&T's agency. Spending on the AT&T campaign was not disclosed, but the carrier spent $118.4 million in measured media last March, according to TNS Media Intelligence. By comparison, Verizon Wireless spent $124.3 million for the same month in 2007.

Mr. Kagan said that service quality was a major issue five years ago, when Verizon Wireless started running ads showing a nerdy serviceman who wandered about asking, "Can you hear me now?"

Verizon rated best in survey
Consumer Reports senior editor Jeff Blyskal said that for the past six years the organization's reader surveys put Verizon Wireless at the head of the pack in overall performance, based on factors including connection, customer service, dropped calls, sound quality and static. In 20 U.S. markets, Verizon Wireless, and sometimes Alltel or T-Mobile, led the pack. In major cities such as Atlanta, San Francisco and Washington, AT&T trailed Verizon Wireless, though the two wireless giants were in a statistical tie in New York.

"The numbers for the past six years consistently show Verizon at the top, with Alltel a close second, followed by T-Mobile," said Mr. Blyskal. AT&T follows, and Sprint is last. "AT&T has cherry-picked one element," coverage, which the company has chosen to put in the ads, a move Mr. Blyskal said is typical when data is used for marketing purposes. In Consumer Reports' most recent survey, conducted last winter, 47,000 readers responded to questions about their cellphone service.

AT&T spokeswoman Jennifer Parker derided the Consumer Reports conclusions, however, as "simply a survey of their readers based on consumer perceptions, and are completely subjective -- not based in fact, as our advertising claims are." She said AT&T is basing its "best coverage" claim on having service available "in more places around the world than any other carrier -- that's a fact, and it's the basis on which we make our advertising claims," she said. AT&T's voice service works in more than 200 countries and has wireless data coverage in more than 145 nations, she said.

Many telecom experts acknowledge proving one telecom service is better than another is difficult. Mr. Kagan said customers of most tier-one networks have quality service, depending, of course, on how strong the signal strength -- or "bars" as AT&T refers to them in its ads -- is in a particular locale. "Best coverage is up to the customer -- if the subscriber is in an area that has a great connection, they have quality coverage. If the bars are low, they have lousy call quality," he said.

Testman holds his ground
Verizon spokeswoman Brenda Raney was confident its iconic "Testman" wins against any AT&T claims, citing the company's average commitment of $5.5 billion a year to increase network coverage and capacity as well as Verizon's industry-leading low membership churn rate of 0.94% among postpaid customers.

Given the prevalence of companies using the quality strategy, some telecom and branding analysts are questioning whether Verizon Wireless may start to view Testman as a bit long in the tooth and turn to other marketing strategies. Verizon Wireless, however, is standing by its man. "Testman is a reflection of how we do business -- not a short-term campaign," said Ms. Raney. "We are comfortable with the role Testman plays in advertising."

Interpublic Group of Cos.' McCann Erickson, New York, is Verizon's agency.

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