Who is The Man? Ma Bell? A higher authority? Us? Maybe

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Let great minds ponder the mysteries of the universe. I'll settle for knowing what the Sprint guy means when he says "maybe" about whether he's sticking it to himself when he's already the Man.

I know you've seen the commercial-everybody has (although many people don't remember it's from Sprint). The big boss-played by John MacKay, 58, a one-time Teamster truck driver-is sitting at his desk, and his underling is at the side. The young guy (played by Jimmy Owens, 27, a graduate of Emerson College) asks if that's his new Sprint phone on his desk. The boss acknowledges that it is, then says: "With Sprint's fair and flexible plan nobody can tell me what to do." He can call anyone, anytime. "It's my way of sticking it to The Man."

Mr. Owens looks incredulous. "But ... you are The Man." Mr. MacKay replies, "Uh-huh." Mr. Owens says, "So you're sticking it to yourself." Mr. MacKay looks at his young employee and counters, enigmatically, "Maybe."

That one word has got the blogosphere buzzing. "Sprint is trying to suggest there's a real sense of power in their `all-inclusive' cellphone plan-power that is tangible, power that is liberating, power that makes the little guy feel like he's gotten a perk that puts him on an equal level to `The Man'- it's so powerful that it can be enjoyed by even the out of touch boss-to such a degree that he's rebelling against the guy in the corner office who always gets the perks when in fact he is that authority, he is `The Man,"' wrote someone identifying himself as "Top Cat" on mind.link.com.

My interpretation is more metaphysical. Perhaps the Sprint guy realizes there is a bigger man than he, a man that has caused great pain and even despair, a man who deserves having it stuck to. Could it be that the old AT&T, the embodiment of the monopolistic octopus whose far-reaching tentacles controlled us at every turn, is "The Man" (even though AT&T was referred to as the benign "Ma Bell")?

On the other hand, as my wife Merrilee suggests, maybe there's a simpler explanation: The boss knows he's about to get fired and so won't be "The Man" much longer.

As our reporter on the telecom beat, Alice Z. Cuneo, found out when she talked to Mr. MacKay and Mr. Owens, the commercial almost had a different ending-one that we probably wouldn't be talking so much about.

Like Mr. MacKay, Mr. Owens credited the commercial director, Sam Cadman. He said he had never met or rehearsed with Mr. MacKay before the day of the shoot. "Sam let us improvise," Mr. Owens told Alice. "He had a great ability to appease both the client and the creative talent," i.e., the actors, said Mr. MacKay. "It was nice because you feel you have a little part of it-a lot of times you are just a mouthpiece."

The final lines were the result of that collaboration. Originally, Mr. Owens was to say, "But you are the Man." And Mr. MacKay was supposed to end with "Yes, but I just like to hear you say it."

In the improvised version, Mr. Owens said, "but you are the Man." Mr. MacKay replies, "Uh-huh." Mr. Owens then adds, "So you're sticking it to yourself," and Mr. MacKay, in the greatest switcheroo in commercial history, pauses ever so slightly and says, "maybe."

"Rarely is a commercial honestly funny," Mr. Owens said. "That may be why it has taken on a life of its own." Or, I would add, because of the sudden feeling of uncertainty the improv- ised "maybe" inserted into the equation.

(For more of Alice's interviews with Messrs. MacKay and Owens, see AdAge.com QwikFIND aar36t)

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