Cable company Bright House, owned by Newhouse, got the tweets going earlier this year when it ran a four-week teaser campaign titled "Hello Friend."
Some people in markets where Bright House does business, such as Tampa Bay, Orlando, Detroit and Indianapolis, were both disappointed and incredulous when they found out their local cable company wanted to befriend them.
But before the culprit was revealed, the teaser ads set off some wild speculation around the web about who was behind them.
One person said a few theories were going around that it was the Mormon Church "stirring up some buzz," while another noted that the ads were appearing in crucial swing states in an election year. "With the recent Supreme Court blessing of unlimited super PAC contributions, could we be watching a campaign ad?" the person asked.
At least a couple of people saw something more nefarious. "I think it's about an alien race who are planning to reveal themselves soon. Just a theory." That comment drew this response: "I am leaning toward the alien thing. My dog reacts every time this plays. I think they are broadcasting in a range they can understand."
One guy noted that he's seen many comments that the teaser ads were "a classic marketing campaign, but in my experience they end up as memorable ads for crappy products. MetroPCS ran those stupid "Hello-Hello-Hello' ads without identifying the product. They were memorable ads for a third-rate phone company."
The teaser ads created both agitation and high expectations. "At first I was just curious about the commercials. Then I got mildly irritated. Now I am getting so agitated at that creepy whistling that when they have the big reveal I might just boycott the company. ... It just might backfire on them."
A plaintive whistled tune (some called it "eerie") was front and center in the radio and TV spots.
Maybe one of the reasons marketers don't do teaser campaigns much anymore is that the product seldom lives up to all the fuss. In January, when Matthew Broderick showed up in a teaser campaign on the web reprising his role as Ferris Bueller, thousands of consumers thought the spot was for a sequel to the 1986 classic. Of course, there was no movie in the offing. Rather, the video was simply teasing a Super Bowl commercial for automaker Honda, and many of the film's fans were disappointed.
Some fans of the "Hello Friend" ad warned that this could happen. Said one blogger: "To the marketing team and ad agency that came up with the campaign, congratulations. You built product awareness perfectly. I just hope your product or service is worth all the hype ."
When Bright House finally owned up to instigating the "Hello Friend" advertising, here's how its website explained the message: ""Hello Friend' is not just another ad campaign. It is about the relationship we have with our customers. It is about taking some of the great things we already do and making them even better. It is about what it means to be a service provider by asking a very simple question: If we saw friends rather than customers, wouldn't that change everything? Hello Friend."
Mitt Romney got into hot water when he said that "corporations are people, too." So Bright House is taking a leap of faith that their customers want to be buddies with a cable company. One girl on You Tube said about Bright House: "You are a corporation, let's get that straight. ... You didn't do anything friends do, like inviting us over for a barbecue party or calling us up and saying what's up. You're not our friend."
More importantly, if Bright House is your friend, how will you feel if it suddenly raises your cable rates? Is that a reason to break up the friendship? As one tweet said: "Your hello friend commercials were great until you turned them into a sales pitch."
What disappointed a lot of people is that they got their hopes up thinking somebody or something really cool wanted to be their friend, only to find out that it was their local cable company pledging not to charge them if they showed up late.
In looking over all the blogs and postings about the Bright House ads, I ran across lots of complaints about high prices and the bundling of services people didn't want, but I didn't run across the horrendous stories that prompted Bob Garfield to start his Comcast Must Die blog. Bob, if you'll remember, was subjected to repeated installation delays—including an installer who walked out halfway through a job, never to return—and shoddy customer service that was only remedied after he wrote about the matter on AdAge.com and other bloggers jumped all over the story.
I have a feeling the Bright House ads are aimed as much at its own employees as its customers (who tended to be pretty skeptical about warming up to the cable company). Maybe customers don't want a company—especially a cable company—as a friend, but there's no downside to Bright House employees taking on more of a friendship role (even though it's unreciprocated) if it helps the company forge better relationships with its customers.
Of course, getting too chummy could create a whole new set of problems.
You can reach Rance at firstname.lastname@example.org.