Maybe It Sells, but What Values Is AT&T's Awful Ad Promoting?

Dweeb Husband and Shrew Wife, Their Union Hinging on Free Minutes, Push the Wrong Buttons

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If you work in an agency, you have license to judge the quality of advertising, wherever it is found. (The rest of the world is limited to the Super Bowl, when everyone becomes a creative director for a day.) One of the guilty pleasures of the profession is passing judgment on the work of others, especially trashing work that you despise. The challenge is distinguishing between ads that you don't like for personal reasons and work that is just plain bad.

When I encounter a particularly annoying ad, I like to give the advertiser the benefit of the doubt. Possibly, I'm the wrong demographic, so I'm not supposed to like it. Maybe the advertiser knows something that I don't, and the ad is actually brilliant. Perhaps the agency or brand is purposely trying to offend or annoy people to increase recall or stand out in a crowded marketplace. Remember the famous "Clap On, Clap Off" ad for a sound-activated switch? Annoying yes, but it drove sales like wild.

Then, occasionally, I see an ad that transcends all my justifications and is just wrong on too many levels.

If you watched the baseball playoffs recently, you couldn't miss the AT&T ad for unlimited messaging, affectionately titled, "I Should Have Married John Clark." A dweeby husband tells his wife, who is cutting flowers in a greenhouse, that he bought unlimited messages from AT&T. She reams him out for making the decision without her input, and mutters under her breath that she should have married John Clark. He sheepishly responds that the minutes were free, in a voice that sounds remarkably like the Michael Cera character in the movie "Juno." Fade to black.

Both characters are purposefully unlikeable. He's beaten down. She's a shrew. The worst sin for me is defining a relationship around the value of a consumer decision. Overpaying for minutes is confirmation that the wife married the wrong man. Discovering that the minutes are free apparently redeems him. That's just ugly.

I can't imagine the creative brief, or the strategy that explains this commercial. What part of the world is still choosing a communications brand based on free minutes? Is AT&T targeting deeply dissatisfied couples? Are the rest of us supposed to feel better about our lives in comparison, and associate pleasure with the brand?

I did an informal survey of web sites and blogs that commented on the ad to see if I was in the minority. This ad is almost unanimously despised. My favorite comment: "Woman, if we can afford a green house, we can afford unlimited minutes."

Men by and large took offense at the woman's behavior. Someone pointed out that the only social and ethnic group that can be made fun of is white males. Another deduced that the ad is aimed at women who don't need the approval of their pathetic husbands.

More interesting were the people looking at larger trends. One noted a trend for commercials to show relationships gone wrong. Another noted the lack of faith in marriage in a range of advertising.

Then there's the bottom-line question: "And how is this supposed to make us in any way want to go with this phone plan?"

To be fair there are some people who like this ad. You can find them is a discussion group on the AT&T Web site.

Only AT&T knows if this ad helps to build the brand that they aspire to. But during a season when we're paying homage to Steve Jobs and the Apple brand built on our potential to change the world, I'd like to focus on the better parts of our nature. Sometimes, you need to go beyond the question of whether an ad works and decide whether it represents values that you admire. I'm with the person who can't imagine how this ad survived the first client review.

Phil Johnson is CEO of PJA Advertising & Marketing with offices in Cambridge and San Francisco. Follow Phil on Twitter: @philjohnson.
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