Press O for Oblivion

Breaking up: Sprint executive Brian McIntee helps retire an iconic ad at the Woodbridge store.
Breaking up: Sprint executive Brian McIntee helps retire an iconic ad at the Woodbridge store. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 3, 2005

Come back, Trench Coat Guy.

Until last month he was the spokescharacter for Sprint wireless phones, the guy who solved pesky cellular problems wherever and whenever they arose. He was ubiquitous, appearing in 155 commercials over the past six years. More than that, he was an icon of the Internet age -- the Mr. Whipple, the Joe Isuzu, the Madge or Mikey of his time.

Now Trench Coat Guy is gone, dropped like a bad connection. He went away quietly, without making a scene, which is just how you'd expect him to go.

He is, it seems, a victim of corporate politics. Sprint recently bought Nextel for $35 billion, and as a result, things have changed. Trench Coat Guy was great when Sprint was selling its services primarily to household customers. But Nextel is focused on the business market, and so the company now needs a new image.

Trench Coat Guy is therefore "on hiatus" for an indefinite period, explained spokeswoman Mary Nell Westbrook, who said he might reappear in the future.

Might. At some point. Maybe. Of course, that's what Dell Computer said when it put the Dell Dude on hiatus -- permanently, as it turned out -- in 2002.

Trench Coat Guy deserves better.

Trench Coat Guy gave a fresh face to an otherwise faceless, multibillion-dollar telecommunications behemoth (and helped make it successful enough to buy another faceless telecommunications behemoth). He was all about underselling. Trench Coat Guy never pushed, never grated, never tried to get you to take the premium plan. He just laid it all out in that unemotional way, as if it was common sense.

Trench Coat Guy solved cell phone problems in a way that suggested Sprint knew there was more to life than solving cell phone problems. His commercials were offbeat mini-sitcoms that disarmed the viewer with their gentle absurdity and mocking self-awareness.

He came to the rescue, for example, when a talkative preteen girl faced the agony of waiting until her cell plan's cheaper evening rates kicked in. The girl spent the time braiding the hair of everyone in her family, including Dad and the dog. Trench Coat Guy pointed out that Sprint's evening rates start at 7 p.m., instead of the usual 9. Problem solved.

In another ad, Olympic snowboarder Jonny Moseley grew frustrated because his big gloves prevented him from dialing his phone while he was on the slopes. Trench Coat Guy came tromping through the snow, in suit and tie, to introduce Moseley to Sprint's voice-activated calling.

Another series of commercials touted the supposed clarity of Sprint's network. Mom, using the evidently inferior Brand X phone, called the babysitter, but static interfered: "I asked how are the kids . . . and she floured the kids!'' Cut to Trench Coat Guy sitting next to two children with faces full of flour.

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