You're growing all too familiar with Cliff's subtle threats and Joan's breathy importunings and Burt's sincere promises? You'd just as soon not hear any more about choosing a long-distance telephone company for the next decade or so? Tell it to the judge.
The federal judge, that is -- Harold Greene -- who ordered the divestiture of AT&T, effective Jan. 1, 1984. He's the one responsible for close to three years now of celebrity commercials for long-distance carriers, for people marking ballots according to whether they trust AT&T's Cliff Robertson or MCI's Burt Lancaster/Joan Rivers combo more than GTE Sprint's anonymous Joe College.
He's responsible, in fact, for one of the fiercest of recent ad wars, now heading into its ear-jangling final months. But to understand what the judge wrought -- and the campaigns to come -- it helps to recall a little advertising ancient history.
Before the days of Cliff and Burt and Joan, phone company ads were as deliciously gooey as Viennese pastry, full of family reunions and grandparents reading bedtime stories. AT&T's touchy-feely long-distance ads were such throat- grabbers that both they and the parodies aired by MCI, the first competing carrier to mount a major national campaign, were among the most popular and memorable commercials on the air, according to audience research.
You remember "Joey Called"? AT&T's version, in which a grandmother wept happily because her son called just to say he loved her, was "a blockbuster," says AT&T advertising manager Mike Neavill. It was, he says, "probably the most well known commercial we've ever done." But MCI's witty takeoff, in which Joey's mama is weeping because her phone bill is too high ("Reach out and touch someone for a lot less," said the tag line), also showed up on the annual survey of viewers' favorites done by Video Storyboard Tests, a Manhattan firm that does audience research on commercials.
Then came "equal access," the two-year period -- beginning in mid-1984 -- during which consumers were required to select a long-distance company.
With 70 percent of the nation's already rather confused long distance customers up for grabs, advertising budgets inflated dramatically. GTE Sprint will spend more than $50 million in all media this year. MCI will not provide figures, but industry sources estimate its expenditures at $60 million or so. As for AT&T, which outguns everyone, estimates run from $150 to $200 million on television advertising alone, with spending reaching perhaps $1 million a day when other media are included.
Not surprisingly, the ad campaigns "got more competitive, more aggressive," says Brian Moran,who covers telecommunications for Advertising Age. "There was a deadline."
Hold the goo.
In 1983, AT&T and its agency for the domestic long-distance business, N.W. Ayer, signed the first of the big names. The fateful moment occurred at AT&T's office in Basking Ridge, N.J., where half a dozen executives plotting their equal-access campaign were mulling the pros and cons of having a spokesman.
"One of the problems with the implied endorsement or testimonial is, it might be the wrong person, and you're kind of stuck," says Neavill. Advertisers have been known to discover too late that their spokesmen face legal action by disgruntled former lovers or feel the need to lead movements against gay rights bills. This is not a pleasant prospect.
But when someone at the meeting mentioned Cliff Robertson, Neavill remembers, smiles encircled the conference table. Robertson had nice Q-ratings (which measure likability). He'd played the president, for heaven's sake, in "PT-109." He'd been an honorable whistle-blower in Hollywood's Begelman affair. He was not currently shilling for pudding pops, or anything else. He was an AT&T sort of guy, reassuring, a tad square, able to get away with saying things like "For over 100 years, when you reached out we were there . . ." AT&T signed him up for five years.
Meanwhile, MCI and its agency, Ally & Gargano,were also contemplating a change of message in time for equal access. "We couldn't just keep saying, 'We can save you money,' " recalls Judy Ranzer, vice president of advertising and sales promotion for MCI Communications. It was coincidental, she says, that MCI also opted for celebrity spokesmen in 1983.
Having two different sorts of figureheads gives MCI maximum reach, Ranzer figures. Joan Rivers, even though she's comparatively low-key in the MCI ads, "appeals to a special kind of target . . . people who are quick and catchy and contemporary. And some people respond to what I'd call an authoritative, important presence. That's what Burt Lancaster is."
(Historical footnote: MCI once had a third spokesman, Merv Griffin, who did equal access spots in 1984. He was relieved of this role when MCI research found him less effective than Burt and Joan. War is hell.)
(Another historical footnote: Andy Griffith did a few commercials too, but they were for AT&T's consumer products division, not for long-distance. They're separate companies now, remember. They don't even have the same ad agencies. That's the whole point of divestiture. You're supposed to know this stuff by now.)
GTE Sprint, the third largest long-distance carrier (currently at 2 million customers to MCI's 3.5 million and AT&T's daunting 87 million), decided not to be the third company using famous faces. Phone matters were confusing enough.
The campaign J. Walter Thompson's San Francisco office created for Sprint in 1983 was called "Straight Talk" and featured a variety of ordinary folks (actors, of course) talking into a camera. There was a college girl in a rugby shirt ("You can call your folks and tell them absolutely everything." Pause. "Well, not everything") and a slightly whiny New York housewife ("I hate to see you waste your money. Call Sprint. You'll feel better. You will . . . "). At the end of each 30-second spot came the advice: "Call Sprint. Find out about it."
All three campaigns are successes, at least according to corporate spokesmen. MCI says it has more than met its goal of doubling its customer base. Sprint says its residential base has grown 43 percent over the past year.
But AT&T still controls close to two-thirds of the long-distance market, and its spokesmen say it's signing up three of every four customers during the equal-access period. This may not be because people like Cliff's crinkly eyes more than Burt's or Joan's. It may be because they simply see and hear so much more of Cliff. "It's been a lot tougher sell than anyone thought," says Sprint's director of public relations.
None of the three national long-distance campaigns showed up on the Video Storyboard's poll of 1985's most popular commercials, as it happens. Emotional pitches work better, Video Storyboard President Dave Vadehra concludes; "ever since they've gone the celebrity route, they haven't shown up."
Lately, Vadehra notes, Robertson's pitch has been getting rather pointed. He's been showing up in a fun house (because other companies may produce unwanted surprises) and walking past kids talking on homemade tin-can-and-string phones. "A very hard-sell message," Vadehra says. "He's continually putting down everybody. When Number 1 becomes competitive, that means it's a cutthroat field."
But advertising is like the weather in Massachusetts: If you don't like it, wait a minute. The equal-access campaign is waning; by September, carriers will be training their sights on business rather than residential customers. "The business side is really where the action is going to be," says Moran of Ad Age. "The potential payoff is much bigger."
Sprint has already launched its new spots, a stylish series of old-versus-new images aimed -- except for the college kid trying not to tell his father his grades -- at business clients. MCI is ditching Burt and Joan (and with them, the agency that produced their campaign) for a more exclusively business-oriented campaign by D'Arcy, Masius, Benton & Bowles set to air in June.
And AT&T, while it will still be beaming Cliff into your living room, is unveiling its new stuff next month. Roughly half its television advertising will now consist of -- are you ready? -- good old predivestiture goo.
It seems that while Cliff's been warning of the dire consequences of signing with a competitor, customers haven't been making as many long-distance calls as AT&T would like -- only 32.5 million on an average day. What's needed, AT&T has decided, is a little demand stimulation.
Picture this, says Mike Neavill, the advertising manager. The first new commercial "has to do with the relationship between a young girl and her father. Her father is a ballet teacher. She's left home to pursue a career in ballet and she's had a tough day. So she calls him. He's able to make her day a lot better."
Another AT&T ad, about to enter production, will feature a woman in her late thirties who's returning to the work force. "We open with her feeling anxious and nervous about her first day at work," says Neavill with a certain relish. "And she gets a call from her daughter to cheer her up . . .
" 'Reach Out and Touch Someone' is back!"