Dirty Politics Won't Help AT&T Win Votes in Race vs. Verizon

IPhone Carrier Uses Ugly 'Fact' Tactics in Latest Spot

By Published on .

One of the very best things about consumer advertising is that it isn't political advertising.

Campaign ads are, of course, utterly heinous �by virtue of being fundamentally dishonest a horrifying percentage of the time. That is achieved by sleazy political consultants artfully assembling nominal facts to tell blatant lies.

Title: Side by Side
Marketer: AT&T
Agency: BBDO Worldwide, New York

For instance, it is nominally true that we just called political consultants "artful." It also nominally true that the president was seen by eyewitnesses last week being wined and dined by avowed Communists.

Don't smirk. That "fact" from the China trip will probably be used against him before long.

This has something to do with the cynicism of politics, something to do with the reliable gullibility of the electorate ("I said, 'thanks, but no thanks...'") and a whole lot to do with the sanctity of the First Amendment. If political speech weren't protected to a near absolute, nearly every candidate would be hauled into federal court every election to account for distortions, misrepresentations, crimes of context and spurious accusations which, outside of the political arena, would be open-and-shut cases of slander.

So, yeah, one thing Madison Avenue can say is that it's better than that.

For the past few decades at any rate, despite what conventional wisdom may be, the ad industry has been remarkably scrupulous about cleaving close to the facts�and even the truth. Not the whole truth, necessarily, but enough of it to keep the Federal Trade Commission and the courts at a comfortable distance.

Not always, however. The current tit-for-tat between Verizon Wireless and AT&T demonstrates that the ugly tactics of what politicos call "opposition research"�and what we call "lying"�can corrupt a major commercial brand.

The tat was the work of Verizon, which has been using a barren-looking map to illustrate the spottiness of AT&T's 3G service (and the reason iPhone users are often all apped up with no place to go). AT&T sued, claiming that the ads imply its network is altogether spotty, for ordinary phone service and 3G (wireless internet) alike.

AT&T doesn't have much of a case, inasmuch as the competing maps in the Verizon ads are clearly labeled and, in the TV spot, the voiceover refers to 3G coverage (and only 3G coverage) four times in 30 seconds.

It's possible that standard mobile customers will somehow jump to a wrong conclusion, but that's not Verizon's fault. In fact, we'd bet that this wasn't even Verizon's intention; now that they have an iPhone-like product on their network�the Droid�they're simply going after AT&T's soft spot.

Nonetheless, AT&T is outraged, and�having lost its first battle in court�has decided to fight back like a candidate down nine points in the polls three weeks before election day�i.e., by citing nominal (and not especially relevant) facts to mislead consumers. Actor Luke Wilson (Luke Wilson???) is on TV with a point-by-point comparison between the two networks.

"Who offers the best 3G experience? Let's compare."

He then goes to assert that AT&T is faster, has access to more apps and offers the most popular smartphone. All of which may be correct, nominally, but is still blatantly misleading. The claim of superiority invites consumers to assume at least comparable coverage. It is guilty of the very crime, in other words, that it accuses Verizon�unconvincingly�of committing.

As for the explicit claim�a better "experience"�a lot of frustrated iPhone owners in flyover country would call that a big lie.

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