Verizon keeps 'Test Man' on short leash

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He's appeared in more than 100 spots, been filmed on the set of "Jeopardy," spawned a look-alike contest and Web site chat boards discussing whether he is gay. But despite insidious repetition of the "Can you hear me now?" slogan from street corners to "Saturday Night Live" skits, Verizon Wireless adamantly maintains its "Test Man" is not a cultural touchstone and that the actor who plays him should certainly not be "heard."

In fact, the identity of the actor who plays the Test Man and most information about the ubiquitous ad campaign remain closely guarded by the company. This, despite the fact that in in January of 2002, he was identified by Ad Age as Paul Marcarelli.

"He is not positioned as an icon," said Brenda Raney, spokeswoman for Verizon Wireless. "His role is to give visibility to the real people in the company who test the network. We take it very seriously."

staying `one-dimensional'

Verizon Wireless employs about 50 people to drive around in technologically enhanced vehicles to test its network. According to Ms. Raney, Test Man is an outgrowth of this process and characterizes an essential part of how the company does business.

So the Test Man is an amalgam and not a pop-culture icon?

"He needs to stay one-dimensional and [Verizon] needs to control him. It turns from advertising to PR," said Kristie Nordhielm, assistant professor of marketing at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. "To expose him is a tradeoff between getting additional exposure for free and losing control" of his image, she said, "but it's not because they don't want him to be an icon."

Whatever one calls him, the Test Man has certainly hit a nerve. The benign wireless network symbol who looks as though he wandered off the set of "High Fidelity" has spawned many imitations and jokes, including an anecdote on which reports that he is suffering from a brain tumor due to excessive cellphone use. Another site depicts a forest duel between Test Man and the raincoat-clad Sprint PCS "Static" character.

The campaign launched in early 2002, from Interpublic Group of Cos.' Bozell, New York, and has since moved to sibling Lowe, New York. Since its inception, about 50 commercials have been produced as well as another 100 unique spots where the character was shot on-set at a number of shows including NBC's "Fear Factor," WB's "Dawson's Creek" and the syndicated "Jeopardy." The spots were aired during the programs to make it appear as if Test Man was on the particular show.

Last year, the wireless provider also sponsored a series of Test Man look-alike contests in Wisconsin. The competitions offered entry categories for toddlers, tweens and adults.

"I think the key to the Verizon [Wireless] guy is his understatement," said Ms. Nordhielm. "These things go in cycles and right now we seem to be in `less is more' time with the Dell guy [Steven] being `more is more.' To identify a cultural icon is like rolling the dice. It's the right place, right time, right icon."

Verizon Wireless keeps such a tight hold on the "Can you hear me now?" effort that it's embroiled in a dispute with its worker unions, which it claims used the popular slogan in their labor dispute without permission. The quarrel began last November. Union officials are calling the wireless provider "petty" while Verizon Wireless accuses the unions of corrupting a brand that has cost them millions.

About $828 million in 2001, in fact, which is what TNS Media Intelligence/CMR reported Verizon Wireless spent in measured media last year.

But while at Verizon Wireless' behest Mr. Marcarelli cannot be heard, the campaign speaks volumes. According to Securities and Exchange Commission filings, Verizon is the leading U.S. wireless provider, and its subscriber count jumped 14.2% in the second quarter of this year, to 30.3 million vs. the same period the prior year. Verizon, however, did hold the leading share in the wireless market before the Test Man began his quest.

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